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Leno Show Removing Last Vestiges of Not-Tonight-Show-Ness

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When The Jay Leno Show premiered, the parlor game was guessing how well it would do against its big-network competition. Now it’s guessing which basic-cable show will beat it next. Jay’s been topped so far by Monday Night Football, Sons of Anarchy and SpongeBob (that last one not a direct competitor but still no badge of honor). In response, NBC seems to have decided the Leno show has a problem: it’s too innovative!

Thus, as reported by people who are actually still watching The Jay Leno Show, the program is ripping off its unconvincing human-flesh mask to reveal the lizard-skin of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno underneath.

The most significant retooling the show is doing so far is to move Jay’s comedy elements, like Headlines and Jaywalking, from the end of the show to the traditional Tonight slot behind the monologue. As you’ll recall, early on NBC said it was structuring the show with these old standbys at the end to provide a strong lead-in for affiliate news. So the new change sends two possible messages:

1. We were wrong about the lead-in strategy.

2. Screw the affiliates, we’re saving ourselves.

Bottom line, all that stuff about this “not being another Tonight Show” but instead a “comedy show at 10″? Not so much anymore.

Meanwhile, various hypothetical scenarios are being floated out there (none of which involve NBC restoring Southland-like dramas to its 10 p.m. hour). NBC could give 10 p.m. to its affiliates, moving Jay to 11 and Conan to 12 (thus, in effect, becoming Fox II, which the Leno show was already a half-step towards). It could further screw over Conan and give Jay the Tonight Show back (which Leno told a trade reporter he’d do if asked). Or Comcast could scuttle the whole show when and if it takes over NBC.

For now, though, I’m with the various TV observers Bill Brioux of MSNBC polled: I don’t think Jay is going anywhere for quite some time, if at all. For starters, NBC has said it has a two-year commitment. (You can always buy your way out of those, but the Leno move was always about cutting costs—and even more important, what five hours of programming is NBC going to pull out of its hat right now?) Second, even at disappointing ratings, the network likely figures its bottom line is better with a cheap Leno show than with more-expensive programming that might not do much better.

But the most important reason is the one that Brioux’s piece points out: it would require very powerful people at NBC publicly second-guessing themselves. And with Jeff Zucker historically impervious to being punished for NBC’s failures under his leadership, at this point he simply needs Leno to do poorly enough for him to become head of General Electric.