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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jay Leno, the popular late-night host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," bows out of his 17-year run on Friday and heads for prime-time television in a major shake-up of U.S. network programing.
Leno's tenure as the wisecracking, five nights-a-week host of America's top-rated late-night talk show has spanned four presidents and produced landmark shows. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on Leno's program in 2003.
But the 59-year-old comedian will need to keep his wits about him when he returns to struggling NBC this fall in an earlier time slot, pitting his stand-up humor and couch of celebrity guests against some of America's most-watched drama series, including the powerful "CSI" crime franchise on CBS.
"It is a courageous thing to take an icon on late night and move him into prime time," said Dick Lippin, CEO of entertainment and marketing group The Lippin Group.
"With Jay Leno, you have a higher probability of success than with other people. The question is, what will Leno have to do in order to make it appointment television at 10 p.m.?"
Leno's move from the 11:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot will make his one-hour "The Jay Leno Show" the first such program to air five nights-a-week in U.S. prime time. The period runs from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. and typically draws the highest numbers of viewers, making it a lucrative advertising draw.
Leno has barely begun work on the new show but has said it will be similar to his "Tonight" format of an opening comic monologue, celebrity guests interviews, and popular segments like "Jaywalking" in which he jokes with people on the street.
The change will save NBC millions by avoiding production of a costly TV drama when its track record at mounting hit shows has lagged rivals. It is the lowest-rated network of the four major U.S. broadcasters in an already struggling industry.
"This is not a decision we went into lightly. ... All the research came back that people wanted some comedy and we thought earlier was a good idea," Leno told reporters. "This is an economic decision as well. We can do five shows for less money than we can shoot any one of these 10 p.m. dramas.
Moving the program also gives NBC a star with a built-in fan base -- "Tonight Show" averages about 4.8 million viewers per night -- but Leno will need to build upon that to compete.
Top-rated 10 p.m. drama "CSI: New York," part of CBS' CSI crime show franchise, easily brings in more than twice that many viewers.
"Do I expect to beat (the opposition) the first week we're up against each other?. Probably not. It would be nice, but I'm a realist. This is the long haul," he said.
The new time slot will have Leno going head-to-head against Fox's science-fiction series "Fringe", ABC's medical drama "Private Practice", "CSI: New York" and "CSI: Miami" on CBS, as well as edgier drama on cable TV, where shows such as "Damages", "The Closer", "True Blood" and "Entourage" have won awards and adult audiences.
"It's going to be really tough to do this kind of program night after night against a lot of scripted fare," said J. Max Robins, executive director of The Paley Center for Media.
But one thing Leno says he's learned in the past 17 years is that his success comes down to the business of being funny.
"No matter what horrible thing goes on, you go out and do the jokes. And when the times are bad, you do silly jokes.
Editing by Paul Simao