NEW YORK – The future of "The Jay Leno Show" was in question Thursday, even as NBC defended its prime-time talk-show star amid Web site reports the program will soon be cancelled or shifted into late night.
An industry Web site called FTV declared that Leno's show would be cancelled as soon as the Winter Olympics begin next month, when much of the regular programming on NBC will be pre-empted for Olympics coverage.
Then the TMZ Web site, citing undisclosed sources, said Leno's show would go on hiatus Feb.1. Following the Olympics (which take place in Vancouver from Feb. 12-28), Leno will take back the 11:30 p.m. EST time slot he occupied for 17 years that ended last May.
This would make Leno's successor at "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien, "the odd man out," TMZ said.
Late Thursday, The New York Times reported that NBC executives held discussions with both Leno and O'Brien earlier in the day about the future of the network's late-night lineup. Those executives said that no final decision has been made, but did not deny that the network is considering options that could include returning Leno as host of the "Tonight Show."
Since September, Leno has hosted an hour-long talk and comedy show weeknights at 10 p.m. EST. But his lackluster ratings in prime time have upset NBC affiliate stations who complain they are getting weaker lead-in audiences for their local late newscasts than from past NBC fare.
In a statement released Thursday, NBC said, "Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay's show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance."
While this statement didn't clearly refute the Web reports that Leno's show would be dropped, a clarification from NBC executives denied "The Jay Leno Show" has been cancelled.
Thursday night, NBC issued yet another statement expressing the network's commitment "to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night line-up, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."
On Thursday, the rumors surrounding Leno's fate left industry analyst Shari Anne Brill mystified.
"For me, the big question is what is going to happen at 10 p.m. going forward," Brill said, "because that's a critical time period to promote the late local news, and it was the affiliates' dissatisfaction with their lower audience numbers that was the catalyst for speculation on this purported move (for Leno) into late-night."
"The unsolved mystery is what happens at 10 p.m." said Brill of Carat USA.
What sparked Thursday's flurry of Web reports was unclear, but coincided with reports this week that NBC has as many as 18 pilots for prospective new series — presumably more than would be needed to replenish a prime-time schedule for a network that expected to continue filling five hours weekly with Leno's show.
The speculation may also be a run-up to the winter TV Critics Press Tour, which begins this weekend in Los Angeles. At this annual conclave, network programming initiatives are unveiled for media reporters. In turn, reporters have a forum to grill network brass on programming questions. NBC's session is scheduled for Sunday.