War of US late-night big hitters rocks the nation's TV habits

Chat-show host Jay Leno returns to the screen with A-list line-up, ousting drama from prime time slot

Reset your alarm clocks, stock up on cocoa and prepare for war: four months and tens of thousands of column inches after he walked away from his famous leather armchair, Jay Leno is making a noisy return to America's late-night television schedules.

The veteran chat-show host, who in May vacated his lucrative berth on NBC's The Tonight Show, will tomorrow return to the fray with a new show that pits him against both his old rival David Letterman and Tonight Show successor Conan O'Brien.

In addition to ruffling some of the biggest egos in show business, The Jay Leno Show could revolutionise network TV scheduling. It will be broadcast on NBC from Monday to Friday at 10pm – a flagship spot that has for decades been the preserve of scripted drama.

Leno's opening-night show will feature a guest appearance from Jerry Seinfeld, together with performances from Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West. The rest of its opening week will be filled in by Tom Cruise, Michael Moore, Halle Berry and Miley Cyrus.

Yet celebrity wattage is only incidental to the wider drama being played out in his new Los Angeles studio. Should the programme turn a profit, it is also likely to provide a nail in the coffin of traditional prime-time television.

NBC has boasted that, despite Leno's $30m salary, his new show – a mixture of musical numbers, comedy sketches and light entertainment – can be produced for only a fifth of the budget of an old-fashioned drama.

At a time when TV audiences are fragmenting, and viewers are abandoning network channels in favour of cable or the internet, launching The Jay Leno Show therefore represents a sound business move for NBC.

But critics fear that if Leno's new show succeeds in turning a profit, it will encourage networks such as Fox and CBS to cancel their own 10pm dramas such as CSI in favour of cheaper chat shows or reality programmes.

"Historically, network television has been about winning the ratings battle in a particular time period," says Alex Ben Block, The Hollywood Reporter's editor-at-large. "That's not what Jay Leno's about. He's about making money."

Leno's new television show is unashamedly commercial. It will feature widespread product placement and endorsements. One of the nightly segments will even feature celebrities racing hybrid Ford cars around a track outside the studio.

But Leno must be careful not to dumb down too much. Pundits say that if his new programme is considered low rent, hard-pressed advertisers will baulk at paying the prime-time fees to be associated with it. "If he can make big enough profits, NBC will be fine with him," adds Mr Block. "But he has to be careful. If you're the town whore getting rich, are you really going to be respected by the people in church?"

Advertisers have reportedly been paying $55,000 for a 30-second spot in Leno's commercial breaks, which is roughly half the amount they would expect to stump up to appear during a more prestigious drama.

Aside from the commercial pressures, Leno will also be walking a diplomatic tightrope when he hits the airwaves. Despite positive critical reviews, his successor, O'Brien, has been struggling to attract audiences, and his Tonight Show recently lost the number-one ranking in his time slot to his rival, David Letterman.

Though O'Brien and Leno are now playing for the same team, NBC's decision to screen both men's shows on the same channel at different times seems likely to dilute the younger host's audience even more.

The stablemates will even be competing for the same celebrity guests. In an effort to gain the upper hand, Leno has reportedly spent his months off the air courting show-business PR fixers.

"From the booking point of view, that commodity, the A-list, is always competitive," says Jacquie Jordan, a Los Angeles media consultant. "Conan will find it hard to compete, because Jay Leno has one big thing going for him: he's Jay Leno."

Not all A-listers agree, though. Asked about the prospects for Leno's new show, the comedian Joan Rivers said: "I think he will put America to sleep even earlier. And that's good because it will save power and light."

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