The maneuver to keep comic Jay Leno at NBC carries significant risks for Conan O'Brien, who has spent the last four years as Leno's heir apparent for the throne atop TV's talk heap as host of "The Tonight Show."
Now, installing Leno in a high-profile prime-time berth with a new show at 10 on weeknights could seriously complicate the succession, scheduled for June.
"It does take the wind out of his sails slightly," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of ad-buying firm Starcom, referring to O'Brien. "Jay's audience will probably tune in to Jay, and Jay's audience is getting older and might appreciate the fact that Jay's coming on a lot earlier now. . . . So I feel like it puts Conan at a disadvantage. That's a lot of talk shows for one evening."
Indeed, NBC is more heavily invested in after-hours talk than any other network. Next year, executives will also hand "Late Night" to former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Jimmy Fallon. Including "Last Call With Carson Daly" in the mix, the network will be airing 3 1/2 hours of talk starting at 10 every night.
For the first time, the sum total of NBC's nightly talk-show hours per week (17.5) will exceed the prime-time hours (17) devoted to everything else: comedies, dramas, reality series and game shows.
Moreover, Leno and O'Brien are likely to compete for top celebrity bookings even more aggressively than they do now.
Traditionally, "The Tonight Show" has gotten first crack at major movie stars and presidential contenders largely because of its ratings success. (In the November ratings "sweep," "Tonight" averaged 4.9 million total viewers, compared with 2 million for O'Brien's "Late Night," according to Nielsen Media Research; CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman," which competes head-to-head with Leno, averaged 4 million.)
But that all may change if Leno winds up luring a big audience in prime time. And with O'Brien moving from New York to Universal City to take over a revamped "Tonight," both hosts will be drawing from the same celebrity pool.
"Those shows get tune-in based on guests," Caraccioli-Davis said, adding that NBC affiliate stations anxious to boost local news ratings could pressure the network to give Leno the upper hand. "In prime time, the affiliates are going to demand something to promote at 10, and the only thing you're going to promote at 10 are the celebrities."
At a taping for his show Tuesday, O'Brien said he was "thrilled" that Leno would remain with NBC.
"I've known about this for a while," O'Brien told viewers. "I've talked a lot about this with Jay. . . . He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in. He is a huge part of my success. I am indebted to Jay Leno."
During a conference call with reporters early Tuesday, Leno downplayed any hint of conflict over bookings, saying the competition would be "no more than it is now."
"If a guest is in New York, Conan and I will talk and say, 'Well, Conan, why don't you do him first?' -- or whoever it might be -- 'and I'll put him on 10 days later just to make sure we don't tell the same stories and don't ask the same questions,' and vice versa.
"A lot of time a guest starts their press tour in L.A., and then they go do Conan later. That won't be any problem. I mean, it's less of a problem than if we were on competing networks. . . . I would rather fight with my family than the other networks," Leno said.
"If that's the biggest problem we have, I'm not going to worry about it," a person involved with O'Brien's show, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the bookings issue Tuesday.
But if O'Brien's status is muddied by the Leno move, at least one group is likely to emerge a clear winner: Hollywood celebrities, who are always on the lookout for more promotional outlets for their projects.
Howard Bragman, a veteran publicist and author of the forthcoming self-help book "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?" said the booking issues amounted to "nuances" that would need to be worked out internally at NBC.
But Bragman greeted enthusiastically the idea of a prime-time companion to "The Tonight Show."
"Conan was always going to be compared to Jay Leno," he said, adding that NBC had to keep the two new programs distinct in viewers' minds. But the PR payoff could be enormous, Bragman added.
"This is an early holiday gift for celebrities and publicists," he said. "We haven't had a prime-time venue for celebrities before."