Updated: NBC Signs On Leno for Prime Talker

NBC Universal has signed Jay Leno to a multiyear contract to host a new hour-long prime-time talk show that will run weeknights at 10 p.m., the network has confirmed. That leaves NBC with just two hours of nightly prime-time programming to develop for next season instead of three.

Word of the new arrangement comes a day after NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker told attendees at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in New York that the business model for network TV must evolve. (He did not indicate how close the network was to making major changes, however.)

“As broadcast television continues to change, success demands a new paradigm,” said Zucker. “For the past few years, we’ve been very vocal about two things: Transforming broadcast television for today’s media landscape, and keeping Jay at NBC. In this one announcement we have done both. It’s great for NBC, for our viewers, and for our advertisers.”

The move will save NBC millions in production costs, even though Leno likely received a big raise, sources said, especially since a prime-time drama or two half-hour comedies can cost $5 million an hour or more to produce.

Stripping a single program across the same hour in prime-time was a technique used in the early days of television. But it was replaced by the so-call “checkerboard” approach where a different hour or half-hour program is produced for each time period throughout the week.

Of late, the checkerboard approach has come under fire for being expensive (the networks spend $2 billion or more each developing prime-time shows each season) at a time when it is increasingly more difficult to recoup the costs.

At the UBS conference on Monday, Zucker said NBC would consider programming fewer than seven days per week or three hours a night. He noted that competitors like Fox and CW produce only two hours a night. “Everything is on the table,” in terms of reevaluating the network business model, he said.

Leno took over as host for NBC’s late-night program The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in 1992. He is set to hand over the reins to Conan O’Brien next year. NBC has sought a way to keep Leno aboard and on the air, sources said. The network is expected to confirm the new arrangement as early as Tuesday.

This story updates an item posted earlier today with NBC’s confirmation and additional details.