NBC set the bar low for Jay Leno's new primetime 10 p.m. show, and some nights, the veteran late-night show host isn't even reaching that.
After an initial strong showing during his debut week, "The Jay Leno Show" has shed viewers faster than you can say David Letterman. Two weeks ago, a repeat of CBS's "CSI-Miami" topped Leno on a Monday night -- not a good sign, since Leno vowed over the summer to beat the competing networks whenever they aired reruns. The week before, the FX series "Sons of Anarchy" was the first cable show to beat Leno.
Then there's the so-called "Leno effect" that has some of NBC's more than 200 affiliates grumbling that the show's weak lead-in is eroding audiences for their 11 p.m. newscasts. Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon's numbers for their late-night shows are also down, ostensibly because of a weaker Leno.
At what point does NBC say this experiment just isn't working?
NBC declined to comment. However, Leno made it clear in an exclusive interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine that he isn't ready to concede the fight.
"I enjoy being the underdog," Leno said. "Do I enjoy the battle? Yes, I get a certain amount of satisfaction from pounding my head against the wall.
"Emotionally I can take body shots all day long and that doesn't really bother me," he added.
As expected, Leno's numbers swelled the first week as viewers checked out the new show. His Sept. 14 debut scored a 5.3/14 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic and attracted a total 18.4 million viewers. By the second week, the number of viewers had dipped as low as 5.1 million.
"I'm still waiting for a week to go by where he doesn't hit a new low," The Hollywood Reporter's senior online editor James Hibberd told ABCNews.com. "I think he recently did a 1.2 rating on a Monday night."
But all is not bad news. Leno also scored his second-highest rating in four weeks last Tuesday, when he earned a 2 in the adult demo, according to Nielsen's.
Overall, Leno's viewers from his premiere until Nov. 3 averaged 6.3 million, and his average rating in the coveted demographic advertisers pay top dollar for was 1.9/5, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But in the last two weeks, his average numbers dropped even lower to 5.2 million viewers and a 1.5/4 rating.
Back to Tonight
Five million viewers is about what Leno averaged in his 17-year tenure as "Tonight Show" host but it's still less than half the audience for dramas on rivals CBS and ABC in the same time slot.
In his recent interview, Leno made it clear that he'd be happy to return to his old "Tonight Show" time slot - a decision not entirely up to him.
"Would I take it? I guess. But it's not my decision to make; it's really not," he told Broadcasting & Cable. "I don't know. Something makes me think we might be OK here for a while."
"Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30?" he continued. "Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that. I think it's too soon to say whether I regret anything or not," "I'm not here because the 10 p.m. period was widely successful. I'm here because nothing else was working."
NBC, which has been at the bottom of the four networks for some time, took a gamble by putting Leno in primetime in place of the usual scripted drama, figuring that it would at least be able to turn a profit since Leno's show is less expensive to produce.
By that measure, Leno said the show is doing fine.
"I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say," he told Broadcasting & Cable. "So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing OK."
But some media watchers question just how OK.
"I think NBC is at or near a tipping point where something needs to be done," Kim Masters, host of The Business on Los Angeles public radio's KCRW, told ABCNews.com. "It's not simply that it's not performing strongly or the affiliates aren't doing well, Conan is not performing as well in that time slot or Jimmy Fallon after him. There's a bit of a domino effect."
NBC's affiliates, already battered by the economic downturn, have seen their ratings drop 16 percent and, in some cases, like Baltimore, lost their number No. 1 position in the market, according to Masters. Meanwhile, "The Tonight Show" with new host O'Brien is off 23 percent, Masters said.
"NBC can say we're saving a lot of money," Master said. "But what about adding in all the money that they've lost, that would flow back from their own stations, from 'The Tonight Show?'"
Who's to Blames?
Leno said the affiliates didn't sound worried when he spoke to them last week. "They seem to be hanging in there and say they are in it for the long haul," he told Broadcasting & Cable. "I called Baltimore, Boston, the head of the affiliate board. They don't see it as dire as a lot of people are making it out to be."
Leno added that O'Brien is "doing fine." So is Leno, for that matter.
"I'm actually doing well; this is almost the best year for personal appearances since I started," he said. "So there is no negativity there."
That's despite the battering Leno has taken in the press since his primetime debut. Masters and Hibberd say it's unfair to blame Leno.
"I don't think Leno is to blame for anything," Hibberd said. "The company had a complete win on late night and they were at least competitive sometimes at 10. They traded that for being in a death struggle at late night to win and third place often at 10. I'm not sure how great a trade it was."
"NBC sort of designed their own crisis," he added.
These days, it's looking like the best way out may be for parent company GE to sell NBC Universal and there is talk that a deal with cable giant Comcast could be in the works. What Comcast would dois anybody's guess.
But Masters said there's a growing chorus of voices saying NBC should just pay off Conan and let Leno go back to what he does best - late night.