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Is Leno’s 10 p.m. experiment nearing an end?

Low prime-time ratings also pulling down local news, ‘Tonight’ numbers

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MARIO ANZUONI / Reuters file
Two months into a two-year deal, Jay Leno's 10 p.m. talk show already could be in trouble.
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By Bill Brioux contributor
updated 6:49 p.m. ET Nov. 9, 2009

As the title of his 1996 autobiography suggests, Jay Leno went straight into his NBC prime-time rescue mission “Leading With My Chin.” Last week, he walked straight into a haymaker.

The 59-year-old comedian saw an opportunity to boost “The Jay Leno Show” heading into the November sweeps, sitting for an interview with trade magazine Broadcast & Cable. What happened next led to the type of damaging headline he often mocks on his show: “Leno says he’d return to ‘Tonight.’”

That’s how it read in a wide-ranging Q&A session. Leno sounds his typical, scrappy self, insisting he has no intention of backing down from this fight and that he’s in for the long haul. But word back from several quarters is that Leno felt badgered into the “Tonight Show” statement and has, for now, stopped talking to the press.

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All this comes as “The Jay Leno Show” sits — two months into a two-year deal — mired in less-than-stellar ratings.

So low, in fact, the series routinely earns a “loser” tag on Marc Berman’s widely-read Mediaweek industry column, “The Programming Insider.”

“It’s an enormous flop,” said Berman, who doesn’t see the show’s ratings improving any time soon. “NBC is not popping open bottles of champagne celebrating Jay Leno.”

( is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

Most observers expected the series to start fast and it did, drawing more than 18.5 million for that awkward Kanye West confessional on opening night. Launching seven days in advance of the new fall season on rival networks, the series did well all week.

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Then back came CBS’s 10 p.m. power alley, “CSI: Miami,” “CSI: NY,” “The Mentalist,” and promising newcomer “The Good Wife.” Down went Leno.

The comedian did his best to downplay expectations last August before critics in Los Angeles. We won’t beat “CSI Miami” and “The Mentalist” head-to-head against fresh episodes, he stated, but watch for us on those weeks the other guys are in reruns.

The first of those weeks came and went at the end of October, and “The Jay Leno Show” did not see any lift in the ratings. The series drew between 4.4 million and a little more than 6 million in overnight estimates between Oct. 26-30. His rating among the all-important 18-49-year old demo hovered between 1.2 and 1.8, with his best score occurring Tuesday nights out of “The Biggest Loser.”

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If anything, the network that saw a rise in ratings that week was ABC, with shows like “Castle” and “Private Practice” soaring to season highs.

Leno and NBC argue that his cost-efficient show is priced to turn a profit even at a 1.5 rating among 18-49-year-olds, but the numbers have dipped below even that low threshold.

A late October report in Advertising Age suggested NBC has only been able to charge on average less than $60,000 per 30-second spot on “Leno,” half what CBS has been getting for rookie drama “The Good Wife” and a quarter what ABC demands for “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Then there is what Bill Carter and others have been calling “the Leno effect.” The New York Times television columnist and author of “The Late Shift” (the book on the Leno/David Letterman toss up over “Tonight”) said Leno’s low 10 p.m. score has hurt NBC’s entire schedule.

“They had to move ‘Law & Order: SVU’ to 9 o’clock to accommodate ‘Leno,’” Carter said. “That was a time period-winning show for many years and it’s finishing last at 9 o’clock. Now they’ve got a fourth-place show.”

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