Making a radical change in prime-time television, NBC is moving late-night talk show host Jay Leno to 10 p.m.
The decision would keep the popular Leno from bolting to a rival network, as he has hinted. It also upends decades of conventional wisdom that has kept the networks in lock step as they filled their prime-time schedules.
For decades, NBC, ABC and CBS have plugged the 10 p.m. hour with cop shows and medical dramas that have become increasingly costly to produce. Fourth-place NBC hopes to staunch the bleeding in prime-time ratings and the loss of ad dollars by instead airing Leno's lower-cost and potentially higher-profit talk show.
Leno is scheduled to sign off as host of the storied "Tonight Show" at the end of May to make room for Conan O'Brien, who would become the fifth host in the show's 54-year history. The surprise decision could undercut O'Brien's ambition to become NBC's new king of comedy.
But the move solves more immediate problems.
"Jay gets to stay at his home and NBC gets the benefit of his genius," said a person close to the situation who asked not to be identified because NBC was trying to keep the news under wraps until the announcement today.
Nearly five years ago, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker engineered the "Tonight Show" handoff as a way to avoid the kind of gut-wrenching decision that NBC made 16 years ago, when it picked Leno over David Letterman to replace the legendary Johnny Carson.
Letterman then defected to CBS, initially taking a chunk of the "Tonight Show" audience with him.
Although Leno agreed to go along with NBC's transition plan, the 58-year-old comedian came to feel that NBC was moving him out before he was ready to retire. He frequently made light of his plight during his show-opening monologue, and NBC's struggles in the ratings became a butt of his jokes.
The deal to keep Leno behind his desk resolves another problem for NBC. Only two of its 10 p.m. dramas have been solid performers, Tuesday's "Law & Order: SVU" and the longtime drama "ER" on Thursday. This is "ER's" final season, and its departure was expected to leave a gaping hole in NBC's schedule.
Zucker appeared to be paving the way for the Leno announcement Monday, when he told an investor conference in New York that NBC was weighing cuts to its weekly prime-time programming to save money.
"Can we continue to program 22 hours of prime time? . . . Can we afford to program seven nights a week?" Zucker said. "All of these questions have to be on the table."
Now the network will have to come up with only 17 hours of shows. Such a move by one of the major networks would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago but is no longer shocking to an industry grappling with audiences "time shifting" their viewing and watching shows online.
Zucker's remarks came as NBC continued laying off employees as part of $500 million in budget cuts and a shake-up of the programming department. At least 10 top executives were forced out of their jobs.
Now NBC will have a proven performer at 10 p.m. and will not have to spend large sums trying to develop new dramas for the time slot. Zucker and NBC Entertainment co-Chairman Marc Graboff proposed the idea to Leno a little over a month ago, according to the person familiar with the deal.
Leno will continue to perform in Studio 3 at the network's former West Coast headquarters in Burbank. His longtime executive producer, Debbie Vickers, will continue to be in charge of the show.
A new soundstage is being prepared for O'Brien a couple of miles away, on the Universal Studios lot. He will relocate from New York to Los Angeles and take over "The Tonight Show" in June.
It was unclear late Monday when Leno's new prime-time show would begin or how long his contract would run. NBC declined to comment.
Zucker will avoid the embarrassment of losing one of his biggest and most lucrative stars to ABC or Fox, networks that have expressed interest in hiring him. NBC earns about $50 million in profit annually on "The Tonight Show."
A show 90 minutes earlier than Leno's current gig, which draws an average of 5 million viewers, could prove to be even more lucrative because more people are watching television at that hour. But it is not without risk because Leno's competition will no longer be Letterman and ABC's lower-rated news program, "Nightline," but such established shows as "CSI: Miami" on CBS.
Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Scott Collins and Matea Gold contributed to this report.