Leno returns to late night, but can he rule?

When late night TV host Jay Leno reclaims "The Tonight Show" on Monday, NBC is banking that the ratings spiral that marked Conan O'Brien's brief tenure as host will quickly fade to a dim memory.

If viewers want to dwell on the messy dithering that led to this point — Leno moved to prime-time, NBC affiliates rebelling at his low ratings, O'Brien balking at NBC's directive that he and "Tonight" shift to midnight, O'Brien exiting and leaving a diminished audience behind — the network is focused on the end result.

With the Winter Olympics providing a big platform, NBC aired a promotional spot advising that Leno and his famously big chin were back. Another spot had Leno breezing down a coastal highway and cast him as a happy traveler headed home, back where he belongs, after a misadventure not even worth a postcard.

Lisa Howfield, general manager of NBC affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas, thinks Leno's fans will be right behind him.

"I suspect he'll get the same numbers (ratings) he had in prime-time, which are the same numbers he had in late-night. ... I think it's probably going to get right back into normal viewing patterns," Howfield said.

Media analyst Steve Sternberg agrees Leno should regain the late-night lead, which he held for most of his run, despite some observers' assertions that he ended up cast as the villain when O'Brien left.

"I don't think Leno's image took much of a hit with his fans at all," said Sternberg. "That was more of a press and Conan fan-Twitter creation than anything else. Half of Leno's audience is over 55, a group that tends to be very loyal."

Leno averaged 5.2 million viewers nightly in his final season of "Tonight" before O'Brien took over last May, and was drawing virtually the same number — 5.3 million — to his prime-time show.

Expectations were higher for the new show, however, because more people watch TV in prime-time, and affiliates complained loudly to NBC because their local newscasts were taking a viewership hit because of the weak lead-in. NBC eventually bowed to the pressure.

Aside from the Olympics spots, the network has taken a relatively low-key approach to Leno's comeback, especially compared to his splashy debut last fall with "The Jay Leno Show."

The comedian has declined interviews and NBC, which proudly toured reporters through the Burbank set built for Leno's new show, is keeping the now-revamped studio largely under wraps. It will include the time-honored desk-chair-couch setup, which was banished from prime time, and a new color scheme.

Bill Carroll, an analyst with media-buyer Katz Television in New York, said NBC is taking a wise approach by reminding viewers that "Tonight" again has Leno but not "overhyping" the event so expectations remain reasonable.

As for content, Leno will bring along some elements introduced in prime-time, including field reports from comedians and the "Cop N Kitty" sketch, a parody of police teams. These will be blended with the "Tonight" bits Leno has kept alive, including odd headlines and his "Jaywalking" man-in-the-street interviews.

His first-night guests will be Jamie Foxx, Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and singer Brad Paisley. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is set for Tuesday, along with Olympic snowboarder Shaun White and a performance by singer Adam Lambert.

Leno is facing a changed landscape. O'Brien had lost half the audience that his predecessor had drawn to "Tonight," with CBS' David Letterman and other shows the beneficiary.

Whether Leno can reclaim those scattered viewers and his No. 1 status is unclear. A benchmark moment, such as the Hugh Grant interview that helped Leno get traction when he started as "Tonight" host, could make the difference, analyst Carroll said.

But whether that moment belongs to Leno or Letterman remains to be seen.

"Over the long haul, it could go either way. Late night is so fickle," Carroll said.

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