Jay Leno becomes X factor for Channel 3 news

Today's Mediaology: Jayology.

Course subtitle: "Leno, Lead-Ins and Local News."

After Friday's "Tonight Show" hand-off from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien, the King of Chin re-emerges in September as NBC's gonzo gambit: host of a weeknight 10 p.m. show -- a late night joker-turned-prime-time wild card for 11 p.m. affiliate newscasts, including Channel 3's. Network execs and Leno himself have sought to calm the news nerves of programmers hemorrhaging ad revenue and fearful he won't gift-wrap viewers in the same volume as scripted dramas. Unlike weekly series, prime-time Leno won't constitute "appointment TV."

Boston's WHDH even staged a miniature mutiny, threatening to air local news in Leno's slot, before NBC slapped them down with two choice words: "contract violation."

"I haven't been thrilled with my lead-ins with the exception of 'Medium,' which we've lost to CBS," says Channel 3 general manager Lisa Howfield. "But I'm feeling somewhat optimistic about (Leno) on at 10 p.m. I may change my tune, but it's worth testing it."

Scrappy station she's got. In May sweeps -- dragged down by a dead-weight, dead-last network in prime time -- Channel 3 still finished second at 11 p.m. with a 4.3 rating in overall households, well behind Channel 8's 6.3 and ahead of Channel 13's 3.6 and Fox-5's 2.2. But doubts cloud a future pegged to Leno's prime-time potential as a viewer delivery system. Among show suggestions reportedly discussed among NBC, Leno and affiliates:

• Position it more as a comedy hour, climaxing with big bits and (GASP!) Leno's monologue, given that "Tonight" viewership tails off after those segments. "I'd love it," says Howfield, praising Leno's cooperation with affiliates. "That he's even thinking about doing that speaks volumes. When was the last time any 10 p.m. show asked me, 'What can I do?' " (No, "ER" producers never called.)

• Dumping closing credits as Leno tosses viewers straight to newscasts. "To go seamless is what I'm really hoping for," Howfield says.

• Scheduling a "local news pod" at 10 p.m. to capitalize on the 9 p.m. lead-in before shifting to Leno at 10:05.

• Inserting local news at 10 p.m., sending Leno to 10:35. "I'd rather not do that," Howfield says, but jokes about a long-shot possibility: "Hey, maybe he'll anchor our newscast when he's in town."

Beyond optimizing ratings is the cultural reality that in the age of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as America's knee-slappin' news oracles, NBC will program three hours of pokes and jabs at the nightly news -- Jay, Conan and that talk host on training wheels, Jimmy Fallon -- sandwiching a mere half-hour of straight, yuk-free information.

Weighing TV profit against America's need for unadorned news -- especially as legit journalism struggles against the messy cacophony of the Internet and many viewers' news thirst is quenched by topical jesters using headlines as punch lines -- one wonders:

If Jay pays off, will news win big -- and lose even bigger?

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.