Leno may be next
Jay getting lower ratings than Conan
By MICHAEL SHAIN
Jay Leno may be the next high-profile late-night host looking for a replacement.
Four months after taking back the "Tonight Show," Leno's ratings are actually behind those of Conan O'Brien.
The reality is starting to sink in at NBC that Leno is not only getting fewer viewers, but that his show is costing the cash-strapped network between $10 million and $15 million more a year than Conan's show did.
Leno's higher salary -- $30 million per year vs. Conan's $15 million -- plus the cost of his bigger production staff is pushing the show into the red, according to insiders.
"It's got the potential to be a huge embarrassment," says the source.
NBC is about to be taken over in a $28-billion deal with the cable giant Comcast.
"You can't figure they're happy about this," says the insider.
Leno has at least two more years to go on his NBC deal.
But, as Leno himself joked at the height of the late-night mess last January, "NBC stands for 'Never Believe your Contract.' "
It is increasingly clear that the bitter feud between Leno and O'Brien last spring has badly damaged Leno's appeal.
Even though Leno beats David Letterman most weeks, ABC's nightly newsmagazine, "Nightline," is now the top-rated show after 11:30 p.m.
Of most concern to NBC is that the numbers for Leno -- who is seen by about 4 million people a night -- are going down.
"The folks dwelling on Leno beating Letterman [which he did again last week] miss the point," tvbythenumbers.com, a rating Web site that has been following the late-night wars closely, wrote yesterday.
"Beating the competition is important only in press releases. What matters to NBC are a show's absolute ratings [and their trend] which correlate to its advertising potential."
Leno, who was No. 1 in late night when he was pushed out last May, had widely been expected to snap back.
Perhaps most telling of all, Leno's ratings since returning last March are down 20 percent over the same period last year.
That means Leno not only trails O'Brien now, he is also way behind where he was when he left the show last year.