Has feud wounded Jay Leno?

By David Bauder

NEW YORK — Certainly, Jay Leno would love to wake up to find that the last six months was just a nightmare.

That way, he’d be preparing another “Tonight” show monologue, not going on the national shrink’s sofa across from Oprah Winfrey, as he was Thursday. He wouldn’t have seen a photo of himself doctored to look battered on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, symbolizing television’s biggest flop ever. And he wouldn’t have heard the rough jokes with the serious subtext that he had sandbagged Conan O’Brien.

NBC is hoping that it all goes away, too. The network won’t know until March 1 whether he’s been permanently damaged or not by the disastrous decision to try him in prime time and the clumsy way he recovered his old job. March 1 is when Leno returns to late night, opposite David Letterman on CBS.

“He’s going to be competitive, and I think his audience is going to come back over time,” says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal Entertainment chairman.

Except for the Winfrey interview, Leno will do little talking after his 10 p.m. show ends Feb. 9, making way for coverage of the Winter Olympics. NBC will promote his return to late night but in a low-key fashion since it’s been only a few months that it hyped his prime-time show, Gaspin said.

“We’re going to do it with a little humor, and we’re going to do it with a little wink to the audience,” he said. “We know they know what’s going on.”

The 10 p.m. show, canceled because affiliates complained about its low ratings, instantly transformed Leno’s public image into that of a failure after a 15-year run as the king of late-night television.

Meanwhile, his “Tonight” show successor, O’Brien, despite being a ratings failure himself, became a folk hero when he wouldn’t accept NBC’s plan to move his “Tonight” show to 12:05 a.m. to accommodate Leno’s shortened comedy program. Leno has been vilified for taking back a job he plainly didn’t want to leave in the first place, despite promising more than five years ago that he would.

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