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Lessons learned in the NBC late-night debacle

With the stroke of a pen early Thursday morning, NBC and Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien capped the painfully public end of the biggest mistake in modern network television history.

The two sides agreed on a deal releasing O'Brien after executives moved predecessor Jay Leno back to 11:35 p.m. That it took nearly two weeks — as every late-night host on TV took increasingly nasty shots at Leno and NBC — only further highlights the flawed thinking that let a late-night civil war hobble the network.

O'Brien gets a hefty $44 million payout, including $33 million personally, severance for his staff and the ability to work elsewhere after Sept 1.

NBC gets Leno back at the Tonight Show March 1, enough old O'Brien "intellectual property" to keep him from cloning his show elsewhere and a promise that O'Brien won't slag them in the press for a while.

As O'Brien prepares a farewell show tonight featuring Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell and Neil Young (NBC will then run repeats of O'Brien shows until the Winter Olympics begin), let's tick off the painful lessons:

Never underestimate Jay Leno. Say what you will about the mighty chinned one, but Leno has gotten what he wants at every turn of this soap opera, from the moment he snatched the Tonight Show from David Letterman nearly 20 years ago to retaking the Tonight Show in March.

The only question left: Has his carefully crafted, down-to-earth image been permanently punctured by his too-visible takedown of O'Brien?

Network executives cannot force viewer change. First, they tried to predict when fans would tire of Leno, a legendary workaholic. Then they gambled that parking him in a low-rated, profitable 10 p.m. show that hurt affiliate stations wouldn't matter. But NBC learned the hard way, when stations threatened to pre-empt Leno, that they still had clout.

Nice guys finish last in network TV. O'Brien seems to be a smart, talented guy who grew into a job that seemed beyond his abilities 15 years ago. But when he did nothing as NBC let Leno craft a thinly veiled clone of the old Tonight Show at 10 p.m., I wondered whether he had the killer instinct to survive the late-night TV game.

Now I hope he bypasses Fox and takes the 10 p.m. slot on Comedy Central, just before The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. That would be like watching the Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.

TV doesn't have time to develop shows anymore. O'Brien and Leno took two years or more to succeed in their first late-night hosting jobs; this time, they got seven months.

Managing a TV network requires more than good accounting skills. NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker adds the debacle to his long list of programming failures. As Comcast attempts to take a controlling interest in the company, NBC may regret retaining one of the worst executives at creating scripted television in TV history.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Lessons learned in the NBC late-night debacle 01/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 8:58pm]
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