‘The Tonight Show’ still has to worry about tomorrow

TV executives are holding their breath to see whether Jay Leno can recapture his old fans Monday when the comedian returns to “The Tonight Show.” But for NBC, its painful late-night saga may be just beginning, as the restoration doesn’t solve the programming and financial problems that still afflict the network and its prime-time rivals.

Though his good-guy image took a serious hit during the battle with Conan O’Brien over “Tonight’s” host chair, many analysts expect Leno, who turns 60 in April, to win back most if not all of his old fan base, which made the show No. 1 in late night during most of his 17-year tenure.

The long-term future of the franchise, however, is up for grabs.

“NBC would be wise to start test-piloting some guest hosts in the Leno slot,” said Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University. “When [Johnny] Carson retired, they had already run a bunch of guest hosts through at 11:35 and had a sense of who could cut it and who couldn’t.

“NBC needs Jay to stay put for three or four years to reestablish the franchise and give them a chance to studiously figure out where to go,” McCall added.

Perhaps more distressing for NBC executives, pulling Leno out of prime time has meant a retreat to developing expensive scripted dramas for the 10 p.m. hour -- a luxury that bosses had emphatically said they could no longer afford in an era of ever-fragmenting audiences.

Station managers may smile on Leno’s return to 11:35 p.m. because it will likely help revive ratings for their local newscasts, but the move is unlikely to cheer NBC’s financial officers.

NBC executives declined to speak for this article and said that Leno was not available to comment.

The good news for the network is that Leno remains a popular personality. When O’Brien left “Tonight” after balking at NBC’s plan to move the show to 12:05 a.m., Leno was depicted by rival host Jimmy Kimmel and others as a spotlight hog who elbowed a younger competitor out of the way. But analysts point out that most Americans blame network management, not Leno, for the fiasco.

When the marketing company Round 2 recently asked 12,000 senior advertising and marketing executives who was most at fault in the “Tonight” mess, 94% cited NBC executives. Only 5% blamed Leno.

“There are definite Jay loyalists, probably in middle America, who see Jay as a victim in this debacle and will stand by him,” said Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Media in New York, which advises local stations on programming and other issues.

Producers have also lined up a star-studded guest roster for Leno’s first week back, including Sarah Palin, Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn, Morgan Freeman and Simon Cowell. A heavy rotation of promos during the Winter Olympics has trumpeted Leno’s return, to the strains of the Beatles’ tune “Get Back.”

Yet NBC may have just kicked its late-night woes down the curb. The network lost O’Brien, who has a large youth following and will likely start a rival program as soon as the exit provision in his contract permits later this year. While the network has a potential Leno successor in Jimmy Fallon, he has been hosting “Late Night” for only a year and is jockeying for viewers in a crowded field.

“Jimmy Fallon is facing the same issues as Conan and probably Letterman did when they first came to the 12:35 [a.m.] slots,” Carroll said. “They all had to find their voice, their audience and hope that they were provided the lead-in to accomplish that task.”

NBC also learned a painful lesson about the difficulty of trying to break Americans’ deeply ingrained media consumption patterns. No matter how much executives and media experts squawk about the future and changing business models, there are still certain things viewers won’t accept. One of them turned out to be a “Tonight"-like comedy show at 10 p.m.

“Television viewers are still largely creatures of habit,” McCall said. “They expect late-night comedy at late-night time slots.”