LOS ANGELES - The cards, and not the cue cards that he so obviously consults during his monologue, were stacked against Jay Leno in the first place.
Viewing patterns, technology, and the inexorable march of time put the veteran comedian in a near-impossible situation when NBC moved him to 10 o'clock weeknights a few months ago.
But as reports broke Thursday that NBC was looking at changes, the quickness of the network's apparent abandonment of its bold experiment to drop 10 p.m. drama took most people in the TV business by surprise. Few thought NBC would stick by its initial promise to give The Jay Leno Show two years no matter what, but most expected he might get at least half that.
No one involved in Thursday's meetings between the network and representatives of Leno and Conan O'Brien would comment on the record, but lots of people, emphasizing that no deals were final, were talking about a plan that could fall into place in March, when NBC resumes its regular prime-time programming after the Winter Olympics:
The Jay Leno Show moves to 11:35 p.m. and runs only half an hour. The current Tonight Show host, Conan O'Brien, moves to 12:05. Late Night With Jimmy Fallon begins at 1:05.
Fallon will probably be happy to do whatever he's asked to. Leno and O'Brien have strong contracts.
Leno joked on his show Thursday night that NBC stands for "Never Believe Your Contract." It's difficult to imagine him not accepting the change, getting the same salary, about $30 million annually, for doing a half-hour show as he now gets for an hour and getting vindication that the network never should have moved him in the first place.
O'Brien is another matter. One reason for the initial shift was that NBC wanted to keep him from switching to another network. He makes roughly $25 million annually and reportedly has a clause in his contract that requires NBC to pay upwards of $40 million if it takes him off The Tonight Show. Whether moving the show, but keeping its name, would activate that clause is not known. Nor is O'Brien's value to other networks.
CBS's Late Show With David Letterman has been thrashing O'Brien in total viewers ever since he moved to 11:35 last summer. It has also pulled even in the 18-to-49 demographic favored by advertisers.
The problem is that the late-night talk-show format, which goes back to 1954, is tired, older than President Obama, Mayor Nutter, and even eight years older than Phillies veteran Jamie Moyer, the oldest man in Major League Baseball.
Leno's sagging ratings at 10 o'clock are not really his fault, said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University and author of the book New New Media.
"What's really happening is an overall decline in network TV at all times, with the late-night talk show hit worse than other aspects of TV. . . . Five years from now, I don't think there's going to be any late-night talk on television," Levinson said, "unless it's cutting-edge, the way [Stephen] Colbert and Jon Stewart are able to do."
Leno at 10 p.m. averages a tad over 5 million viewers, nearly 30 percent less than NBC got last season at 10 p.m. But the show costs about two-thirds less to produce, so NBC was not unhappy.
Its affiliate stations were fit to be tied, as they saw their 11 p.m. news profit centers (which can account for 20 to 40 percent of a station's entire revenue) also lose nearly a third of their ratings. They blamed it on the bad Leno lead-in.
Comcast, which is purchasing NBC Universal (although the merger still faces stiff regulatory reviews), had no part in any Jay Leno decision, senior vice president D'Arcy Rudnay said yesterday.
However, Comcast executives are unlikely to be displeased at the prospect of Leno's returning to 11:35. The move, along with NBC's decision to invest more in pilot TV shows, seems to fit with Comcast's vision of rebuilding the network. Comcast executives believe that General Electric, NBC Universal's parent company, starved NBC of the money needed to develop hit TV shows, which was a reason NBC moved Leno to prime time in the first place.
Technology also has made things hard for broadcast TV at 10, as cable has come on strong. And, with more and more people watching programming they have recorded earlier, the DVR has become the second-highest-rated "network" most weeknights at 10.
Media analyst Brad Adgate pointed out in a November entry on his blog, bradgateblog.com, that in the current season, only CBS's The Mentalist and The Good Wife, two shows new to the 10 o'clock slot, get hit-level ratings. Other top-rated shows air earlier in the evening, and many of them get substantial DVR play.
NBC moved Leno to 10 in part because, as a topical original show, it was "DVR-proof." Apparently, the network has decided that isn't good enough.
Jonathan Storm: From the Television Critics' Press Tour
Read Inquirer television critic Jonathan Storm's reports from the Television Critics' Press Tour in the newspaper and on his blog, "Eye of the Storm," at www.philly.com/philly/ blogs/storm. On Tuesday and Thursday, he and Daily News critic Ellen Gray will host an online chat at 11 a.m.