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NBC Counts on an Olympic Return for Leno

NBC is completing its U-turn tonight when it returns Jay Leno back to his spot at the Tonight Show.

Jay Leno
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Jay Leno

Leno's late night return comes right on the heels of the Olympics, which scored surprisingly high ratings and packed NBC's schedule.

NBC heavily promoted Leno's return during the Olympics, which are on track to be the second-most watched Olympics ever, with 185 million people watching the first 16 days of events. Now the peacock (our parent company) is working to build on that ratings success.

Bringing Leno back to the Tonight show and replacing him at 10 pm is expensive, by some accounts as much as $100 million. There's the cost of producing new shows for 10 pm: a one-hour drama can cost $3 million per episode, while Leno's 10 pm show cost just $500,000.

There's the $45 million NBC has to pay to Conan O'Brien and his staff for ending his contract after just seven months. And then there were the millions to renegotiate Leno's contract, build new sets, and promote a new show.

NBC is filling the prime 10 pm hour with Ron Howard's new "Parenthood" drama and Jerry Seinfeld's new reality show "The Marriage Ref." They're also bringing "Law & Order" and Dateline back at 10.

For the fall NBC is developing twenty pilots, far more than it has in recent years, to generate a rich selection of new shows for the fall.

Hollywood Reporter editor Matt Belloni told me that NBC is sending the message that it's investing heavily in original content, and trying to return to the types of shows and schedules people expected from NBC before the Leno experiment.

Leno's ratings are expected to pop tonight, thanks to the publicity blitz and guests Sarah Palin, the cast of Jersey Shore, and Olympic skier Lindsay Vaughn. Industry watchers expect Leno to quickly regain his spot atop late night, but it's unlikely he'll draw ratings as high as he did back in 2008. We'll be watching!

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.