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NBC cancels Jay Leno show at 10 p.m.; can it keep Leno and Conan O'Brien, anyway?



Leno-perturbed There's still a few questions hanging, after NBC's admission today that its 10 p.m. experiment with Jay Leno in prime time blew up in their face like every TV critic in America predicted:

When will Conan O'Brien stop letting the peacock network screw up his career?

How does top NBC Universal executive Jeff Zucker still have a job?

And can NBC still hold onto its late night TV stars after its worst mistake in recent history?

Facing TV critics at their twice-annual press tour in Los Angeles today, NBC entertainment president Jeff Gaspin admitted that all the press leaks which emerged Thursday about Leno's problems were essentially correct.

As reported, Leno's 10 p.m. show will leave the air during the Winter Olympics on Feb. 12, never to return. As reported, NBC executives want to keep Leno at 11:35 p.m., with current Tonight Show host O'Brien leading an hourlong show at 12:05 p.m.. And as the New York Times reported, it was a feared revolt by network affiliates at their Jan. 21 meeting which prompted the change, which neither host has officially agreed to.

Obrien-tonight Trade magazine Variety quoted Gaspin saying: ""While performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliate needs. We realized we had to make a change. My goal is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of the late night lineup."

It's the ultimate mea culpa at a time when NBC has already been ridiculed as the Network Which Can't Program Straight.

Here's the damage: In one swoop, NBC hobbled its prime time ratings; seriously injured a successful but fading Law & Order: Special Victims Unit by moving it to 9 p.m.; handed the TNT channel its promising new cop drama Southland, which it canceled without even airing a second season; weakened NBC affiliates across the country with a horrible 10 p.m. lead-in; angered every one of its late-night hosts by putting a lame show at 10 p.m. and then shoehorning Leno back into late night.

It's hard to keep track of all the ways this gambit hurt NBC. So why does the guy who came up with it, former NBC entertainment head Zucker, still working at the network?

That's just one of many questions waiting for resolution. Will O'Brien accept getting pushed back past midnight, when viewer numbers drop seriously? Will Leno be satisfied with a half-hour show? Did NBC hurt his brand so badly that putting Leno back at 11:35 p.m. still won't help things? Does anybody care whether Carson Daly gets to keep his late, late night show?

I think NBC got caught taking a chance right when the network TV game changed again. When they hit on the Leno strategy, they were trying to make the best of an inexplicable decision: forcing workaholic Leno to step down years before they knew whether his ratings would still be strong.

Leno-and-meganfox When the transition time came, turns out  Leno's ratings were still strong, which gave him an incredible amount of leverage in dealing with NBC. To keep him from bolting to a competitor, they agreed to a move they knew would cut the value of their prime time lineup, reasoning that, if the show made money, they could keep shareholders happy while positioning themselves for the day when NBC might become a cable channel or scripted shows would mostly disappear from the networks.

But then ABC's Modern Family, Flash Forward and The Middle, along with CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife, proved there was still life in scripted broadcast TV. And the cable company Comcast bought a controlling interest in NBC Universal; with all its cable channels, it needs good content in the form of popular scripted shows -- which do much better in repeats than unscripted, so-called "reality" shows.

And Fox's successful fight to wring payment for rebroadcasting its network out of Time Warner Cable means there's extra potential profit in network TV shows with good ratings. All of a sudden, a strategy which upsets Hollywood's best TV show creators while encouraging viewers to flee your network at 10 p.m. doesn't make any kind of sense.

The only bright spot for NBC is that both Leno and O'Brien have stumbled so badly in ratings over the past few months, that competitors may be less willing to take either one of them if talks don't work out.

There will be pressure for O'Brien to quit for the way NBC has jerked him around. First they promised him the Tonight Show, only to allow the guy who hosted it before him to take the most entertaining aspects of the old program to 10 p.m. Now they're giving the most valuable real estate in late night -- the first half hour after local news programs end -- to the guy he was supposed to be replacing.

But if O'Brien couldn't win in ratings against David Letterman and Nightline, will he do any better competing against Letterman and Leno on Fox or ABC?

It may hurt his pride to do so, but O'Brien best bet may be to go along with NBC one more time, patiently waiting until he can build up his brand and Leno makes another mistake.

Tell you what; if I ever do get into showbusiness, I want Leno's lawyer.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:04pm]


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