LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jay Leno returns to “The Tonight Show” on Monday, and so does his desk — a sign that struggling network NBC wants its flagship late-night TV program to return to normal after Conan O’Brien failed as its host.
More than a month after O’Brien left “The Tonight Show” in a bitter breakup with NBC and three weeks after Leno signed off from the network’s ill-fated “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m., Leno slips back into his old seat as “The Tonight Show” host.
The question is: Will viewers, who crowned him the king of late-night TV for 15 years in that coveted role, rejoin him?
In what is expected to be largely the same tried and tested formula of celebrity chat, monologue, odd headlines and musical interludes, Leno’s opening week is packed with a stellar line-up including Winter Olympics champions Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White, flamboyant “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert, footballer Brett Favre and politician Sarah Palin.
Perhaps more important, or symbolic, is that he is bringing back the office desk he ditched for more casual arm chairs in a much-talked about change of style on “The Jay Leno Show”.
“They have to go back to the formula that was working, and they have to hope they get the viewers back,” said Marc Berman, senior TV writer with Mediaweek.
NBC axed “The Jay Leno Show” earlier this year because of complaints from local affiliates who said its poor ratings were providing a weak lead into their late news programs.
His genial image took a hit in the bitter reshuffle that ended in January with Conan O’Brien’s $45 million exit from the coveted “Tonight Show” hosting job after just seven months.
Apart from advertisements during NBC’s Winter Olympics, promotion for Leno’s return has been low key.
In his only major interview since “The Jay Leno Show” was yanked off the air, Leno told Oprah Winfrey that he would have his work cut out to recapture his audience. “I think there’s a lot of damage control that needs to be done...The only way you can fix these things is to try and do good shows, not be bitter, not be angry or upset or whatever,” Leno told Winfrey.
Ratings for the “Tonight Show” slid after O’Brien took over in June 2009, allowing rival David Letterman on CBS to take a consistent lead in the battle for late-night network viewers for the first time since 1994.
Leno, 59, was enjoying about the same 5.3 million average audience for “The Jay Leno Show” as he had during his 17-year tenure on “The Tonight Show”.
Most TV analysts think Leno will struggle to get the same numbers immediately. But Steve Sternberg, former analyst with Magna Global, said speculation of a backlash from supporters of O’Brien was “gibberish” because he has a different fan base.
“Jay Leno’s image with his fans has not soured at all...While Conan fans may be justified in their anger, it really has no impact on Leno,” Sternberg wrote in his blog The Sternberg Report last week.
“The average median age of Jay Leno (viewers) on the ‘Tonight Show’ was 54. This means half of his viewers are 55 or older — generally an age group that is very loyal. There’s no reason not to expect them to happily welcome him back to his old time slot,” Sternberg wrote.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman