Mar 1, 2010 11:07 AM by MSNBC
When Jay Leno and his experimental 10 p.m. program, "The Jay Leno Show," went dark just before the Olympics, much of the buzz about his return to late night revolved around who would follow him back to his old time slot at 11:30 once he resumes hosting duties at "The Tonight Show" on March 1. On Feb. 22, with one week to go before his return, NBC released a rundown of guests booked for the first two weeks of the show.
Among the biggest names set to appear the first week are Olympians: skier Lindsey Vonn, snowboarder Shaun White and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno. Sarah Palin and Simon Cowell, both huge gets, are also scheduled to appear on the show within the first two weeks, as are Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Kristen Stewart and others.
By releasing the guest lineup, NBC prevented leaks and rumors about who would be taking a seat at his couch, and it also all but killed whatever remaining conversations there were about whether celebrities were on Team Conan or not.
In other words, the network took a lot of the mystery out of the first two weeks of "Tonight." Does that mean the guest lineup shouldn't double as some kind of coal-mine canary, predicting the amount of life left in Leno's reign?
Take a look at the bigger picture: Yes, Leno's bookers seem to have done a good job getting a range of guests that will appeal to multiple age groups and diverse tastes. However, at the end of the ratings day, what matters more is whether Leno's fans are ready to have him back.
"Either Jay's public following is waiting to embrace him or they are not. He doesn't necessarily need to pick up new people. He needs to keep the old people," said Kim Masters, who covers entertainment business for The Daily Beast.
By "old people," Masters is referring to the viewers who made Leno No. 1 in late night for 16 years. During what was supposed to be his final season as "Tonight" host, he averaged 5.2 million viewers. However, about 2.4 million of those viewers disappeared after Conan O'Brien took the reins.
The ratings show that audiences didn't flock to rival David Letterman, as CBS' ratings remained mostly flat during Leno's 10 p.m. experiment. Cable television networks saw a small bump, but nothing that would account for the millions who stopped watching Leno.
"The big secret in TV that no one is talking about is what's No. 1 at 10 this season is DVRs," said Bill Brioux, author of the upcoming "Night Watch: 50 years of Late Night Television." "The TiVo, the DVR, the growth of that has taken everyone by surprise. NBC did not factor that in (when they moved Leno to 10 p.m.), they didn't see it coming. When (viewers) stopped watching Leno, you had people catching up on their DVRs, maybe watching last night's Letterman, maybe another favorite show."
Some ace bookings for Leno's first two weeks back on "The Tonight Show" will certainly help his initial ratings, but they'll level out, just as they did when "The Jay Leno Show" first came out of the gate in September 2009. The challenge will be getting viewers to change their habits yet again.
Even though NBC is coming off a good Olympics run that gave the network the opportunity to promote its post-Olympic lineup, TV audiences have already gotten into a new groove.
"Once they've been given a few months to find something else, they do change," said Brioux, who is also an msnbc.com contributor. "And, whenever you change a time slot for a show, there's a rule of thumb that you're going to lose about 20 percent of the audience. That's what NBC is facing. ... But I just think the math in the new TV world isn't in (Leno's) favor."
Challenges notwithstanding, Leno shouldn't be counted out of the game. His original fans are likely to return regardless of whether a Kardashian takes a seat on his couch (Kim is booked for March 11) because they just want their Leno back.
"When Jay returns to late night, his fans will feel that the king of late night is back on his throne," said Masters. "Jay had a long run. There are certain people who didn't like him in the first place, and they don't like him more now. It's possible he sustained a certain amount of damage but he's not going to come in and have a belly flop."
And that long run of 16 years is meaningful.
"The remarkable thing is he stayed No. 1 even after the network's decline. A lot of America just sees him as the guy at 11:35 who tells jokes about what happened in the day. He's today's Bob Hope in a way," said Brioux. "We all underestimate Jay Leno. That's dangerous. He has more lives than a cat."