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

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

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

Why 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 on Sunday, NBC entertainment president Jeff Gaspin admitted that all the news leaks that emerged Thursday about Leno's problems were essentially correct.

As FTVLive.com reported, Leno's 10 p.m. show will leave the air during the Winter Olympics on Feb. 12, never to return. As TMZ.com 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 that prompted the change, which neither host has officially agreed to.

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."

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; and angered 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 is 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.

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.

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 that 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.

There will be pressure for O'Brien to quit. 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 to the guy he was supposed to be replacing.

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

NBC cancels Jay Leno show at 10 p.m.; can it keep Leno and Conan O'Brien, anyway? 01/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 9:25am]

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