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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - General Electric Co's NBC Universal said on Thursday it would try to improve the performance of Jay Leno's prime-time show after an Internet report said the network was planning to yank the program.
"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," NBC Universal said in response to the report on website FTVLive.
FTVLive said NBC was going to pull the plug on "The Jay Leno Show," which has drawn lackluster ratings and upset local affiliates since it debuted in September following the network's controversial decision to move Leno to prime time.
Celebrity news website TMZ.com reported separately that NBC was planning to move Leno back to his 11:30 p.m. late-night slot, possibly splitting the hour with his successor Conan O'Brien or entirely replacing O'Brien.
Privately, NBC executives denied the reports. The network in a statement admitted there have been challenges but said it was working to shore up the beleaguered host's performance.
"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," NBC said.
Leno has averaged a little over 5 million viewers in the 10 p.m. slot nightly, compared with the 6.8 million viewers for that slot before his move, according to Nielsen.
NBC has said the show was a commercial success because its ratings, though lower, are in line with what advertisers were promised and the show is cheaper to make than scripted dramas.
But it has hurt NBC's affiliates, whose local newscasts had counted on a bigger "lead-in" audience before the switch.
NBC's overhaul has had major ratings consequences for the network as well. It lost its No. 1 ranking at the 11:30 p.m. hour as Leno's longtime rival, David Letterman on CBS Corp's CBS, beat out his new late-night competitor O'Brien in ratings.
Letterman's show has gone from trailing his NBC competition by 20 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, to commanding a 65 percent lead in the fourth quarter 2009.
Nevertheless, Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said he'd be surprised if NBC threw in the towel so fast. "They'd have to find five hours of prime-time programing. It's not like they have that stuff sitting around on the bench," he said.
Thompson noted that while the Leno show may not pan out, the idea of running a prime-time show five days a week seemed viable.
"It's less expensive, and when you do have a hit, you get one five days week," he said.
Reporting by Sue Zeidler; Editing by Richard Chang