TV executives are holding their breath to see whether Jay Leno can recapture his old fans tonight when the comedian returns to The Tonight Show.
Though his good-guy image took a serious hit during the battle with Conan O'Brien over Tonight's host chair, many analysts expect Leno, who turns 60 in April, to win back most if not all of his old fan base, which made the show No. 1 in late night during most of his 17-year tenure.
BACK TO THE FUTURE: The long-term future of the franchise, however, is up for grabs.
"NBC would be wise to start test-piloting some guest hosts in the Leno slot," said Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University.
"When (Johnny) Carson retired, they had already run a bunch of guest hosts through at 11:35 and had a sense of who could cut it and who couldn't. NBC needs Jay to stay put for three or four years to re-establish the franchise and give them a chance to studiously figure out where to go," McCall added.
WHO'S TO BLAME? The good news for the network is that Leno remains a popular personality. When O'Brien left Tonight after balking at NBC's plan to move the show to 12:05 a.m., Leno was depicted by rival host Jimmy Kimmel and others as a spotlight hog who elbowed a younger competitor out of the way.
But analysts point out that most Americans blame network management, not Leno, for the fiasco. Marketing company Round 2 recently asked 12,000 senior advertising and marketing executives who was most at fault in the Tonight mess: 94 percent cited NBC executives. Only 5 percent blamed Leno.
NO BOYCOTT SO FAR: Another good omen for Leno's success: There hasn't been a shortage of celebrities to sit in the chair across the desk from Jay yet. Sarah Palin, Olympic gold-medal snowboarder Shaun White, Olympic gold-medal skier Lindsey Vonn, Brett Favre and Jamie Foxx are among the big names scheduled to appear in the first two weeks.
In fact, the Washington Post says, the only person who has indicated he'll boycott Leno's show is Will Ferrell.
This is also bad news for Team CoCo — because a guest appearance by Ferrell can kill a talk show faster than Chevy Chase. Ferrell was the first guest on Conan's Tonight Show, and it was toast within seven months. (Ferrell was also the first guest on John McEnroe's talk show, and that one lasted an even shorter period —six months.)
THE YOUNGER AUDIENCE: While Leno's return might solve NBC's late-night woes short-term, the challenge remains to court O'Brien's large youth following, who could follow the host when he starts a rival program later this year.
While the network has a potential Leno successor in Jimmy Fallon, he has been hosting Late Night for only a year.
"Jimmy Fallon is facing the same issues as Conan and probably Letterman did when they first came to the 12:35 (a.m.) slots," said Bill Carroll, vice president at Katz Media in New York, which advises local stations on programming and other issues. "They all had to find their voice, their audience and hope that they were provided the lead-in to accomplish that task."
This report contains material from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.