Is Leno coming back to the "Tonight Show"?

It’s been an interesting day on the buzz and speculation front regarding the futures of Jay Leno’s prime-time show and Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show.

First, NBC denied a report suggesting the network has canceled The Jay Leno Show. In fact, network officials released a statement this morning saying they were in full support of the show and working with affiliates to improve the program.

But later in the day, the network did not deny a report from the “ever-reliable” TMZ  that Leno would get his 10:35 p.m. time slot  back.

As you  recall, NBC made a deal with Conan O’Brien in 2004 to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno in 2009 to avoid a situation that occurred in 1992, when NBC passed over David Letterman and chose Leno to host The Tonight Show, which resulted in Letterman to jump to CBS two years later to host a late-night gabber of his own.

Leno soon had buyer’s remorse about his “retirement” and to lower costs in prime-time, NBC gave him a weeknight strip to air at 9 p.m. weeknights. But the results have been disasterous for some affiliates’ late news – WMAQ-TV’s 10 p.m. has dropped to third place in households in the most recent sweeps period.

Right now, if NBC does give Leno the Tonight Show back, it would still have to pay Conan O’Brien what is owed through his contract. Much like the situation with Bears coach Lovie Smith, replacing him would indeed be costly. And it would be vice versa if O’Brien got his Late Night slot back, pushing Jimmy Fallon out.

Meanwhile, NBC announced its support for Conan O’Brien in a just-released statement (as of 6:50 p.m. CT.)

And then if this move happened in the short term (like right after the Winter Olympics next month), what would NBC fill the 9 p.m. time slot with on such short notice?

The first hint dropped regarding Leno’s future came yesterday, when NBC ordered 18 pilots for next season.

But after today’s shenanigans, one thing is certain: Leno will not return in prime-time next season. NBC’s press release basically was just saving face and spin control. The peacock network knows when its licked. The only question now is, will Leno make it through the rest of the season? Hell, will he even make it through the winter?

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