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Jaypocalypse 2: The Jaysurrection–How Will He Do?

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Tonight, The Grover Cleveland of television, Jay Leno, commences his second nonconsecutive term as the host of The Tonight Show. (As I write this I’m about to head off on assignment for a couple days, so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to blog about his first night back or not.) His first week, as I’ve noted, has no blockbuster guest list, with the exception of Sarah Palin. This may be by design (to keep his return low-key) or it may mean that Jay’s reputation has indeed been harmed by the ouster of Conan O’Brien, at least among celebrities sought for bookings.

But ultimately, celeb fallout is not the important issue, unless it affects the only issue that matters: how will Jay’s ratings be when he comes back?

I still predict—and mind you, I’m no genius at predicting ratings—that Jay will in no way be hurt as badly as the public controversy over Conan might lead you to believe. (I’m talking here about long-term ratings after they settle, not the tune-in for his first night or first week back.) If I have to guess, I’d say that Jay gets most, not all, of his previous Tonight Show rating, and likely eventually beats Letterman again, at least in overall viewers. Here’s why, plus a couple reasons I might be wrong:

* Jay’s actual audience. Yes, a lot of people are intensely pissed off over the Jaypocalypse. In particular, people who didn’t watch Jay Leno.But what matters is how the controversy hurts, if at all, among people who used to watch him on the Tonight Show. His hardcore fans—people who love Jay and followed him to his 10 p.m. show—don’t think he did anything wrong and are glad to have him back. His less hardcore audience, average, non-showbiz-obsessed folks, just want to watch some TV at the end of the day and could give a rat’s ass about the professional integrity of their TV hosts. (Steve Sternberg develops the case here.)

* Time heals. But even assuming that there’s some lingering yuck factor hurting Leno, how long is it likely to persist? Look, I was hard on NBC, and to an extent Leno, during the Jaypocalypse. But the dude did not kill a man. Whatever Team Coco thinks of him, and whatever the general public thinks about him, eventually that’s going to fade, just as his machinations to get the show over Letterman did.

* The Letterman effect. Now, I don’t expect Jay to go back and get 5 million viewers a night again. Simple reason: Late night is about habit, and NBC has broken its viewers’ habit twice in a year. People left to sample David Letterman—some will come back to Leno, but enough of them are going to decide they like that new habit just fine now. Leno has been on TV for two decades, so it’s not like he’s got some resource of new viewers to replace those.

* The stars will come back (maybe). Even if Leno is having trouble booking some A-listers, if his ratings do well enough anyway, most will return, because publicity is publicity. Celebrities did not move to Canada when W was re-elected in 2004, and they will not permanently stay away from Tonight if it’s #1 again, or close to it. And nowadays, there are only so many celebrity guests that truly make a big difference to ratings.

* The unknowns. That said, there are plenty of reasons I could be wrong. As I said, the fact that Leno went on Oprah suggests that he and NBC are more worried than I am about the practical effects on his image. And there are things about the audience we don’t know. Leno got 5 million viewers in Tonight and 5 million in prime time. But we don’t know how many of them were the same viewers—and thus will follow him back—and how many were just watching whatever happened to be on TV. If the latter is a big number, he could lose more viewers to Letterman—or simply to bedtime—than I am expecting. Especially since he, like Conan, will have lead-in problems. His local-news lead-ins have been damaged—by some show with some guy NBC put on at 10 p.m.—and once local-news ratings are hurt, imroving them is akin to turning around a cruise ship. (Because they too are largely about habit.)

I will frankly admit, as a TV observer, that if Leno’s ratings are not good, things get really interesting. How long does NBC give him to turn it around? And it would just be the cherry on NBC’s disaster sundae: it will have gutted its primetime and its late-night, all while paying $45 million to strengthen a potential competitor in Conan O’Brien.

That, of course, will never happen, because NBC never makes programming mistakes. Right?