Jay Leno may be going back to his old stamping ground and it could be destination unknown for Conan O'Brien.
Because of sinking ratings and affiliate requests, NBC is planning to move the floundering prime time comic back to his former start-time at 11:35 p.m. each weeknight -- for only 30 minutes -- and push the man who replaced him to 12:05 a.m., according to the New York Times. Jimmy Fallon, who follows O'Brien, would start his show at 1:05 a.m.
Network executives discussed the plan with the Leno and O'Brien Thursday, the Times reported today. Amid a firestorm of speculation that NBC might can O'Brien altogether, the network released a statement declaring its loyalty to the late-night comic.
"We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC," the network said in a statement Thursday evening. "He is a valued part of our late-night lineup, as he has been for more than 16 years, and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."
His Sept. 14 debut attracted 18.4 million viewers. By the second week, however, the number of viewers had dipped as low as 5.1 million.
A fall repeat of CBS's "CSI-Miami" topped Leno on a Monday night; not a good sign because Leno vowed this summer to beat the competing networks whenever they aired reruns. Before that, 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. O'Brien's and Fallon's numbers for their late-night shows are also down, ostensibly because of a weaker Leno.
Leno made it clear in a 2009 interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine that he wasn'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.
But now, bowing out of the 10 p.m. race may not be a choice left up to him.