NBC Faces a Redefining Moment
On Sunday, NBC confirmed what was Hollywood's hottest rumor all weekend: The network is dropping The Jay Leno Show from its prime-time lineup after his Feb. 11 show. The former Tonight Show host will return to late night on March 1, after NBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics, in a half-hour format in his old perch at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT. The Tonight Show, now hosted by Conan O'Brien, would move from the after-news slot it has occupied since the '60s to after midnight: 12:05 a.m. ET/PT.
NBC's shift marks a quick end to a five-month experiment that the network heralded as a new way to program prime-time television: by positioning Leno's topical, relatively inexpensive-to-produce show as a lead-in to local newscasts. But Leno's mediocre ratings drew complaints from affiliates and helped fuel the latest drama to beset the struggling fourth-place network. The network unraveled a risky move aimed not only at cutting costs but also at keeping Leno from defecting to another network after NBC anointed O'Brien as his successor on The Tonight Show.
Leno's return to late night throws into question the future complexion of the legendary Tonight Show - at 55, one of the longest-running shows on television - as well as the future of its new host, O'Brien.
O'Brien now faces a difficult choice: Does he stay at the network that promised five years ago he'd get the primary late-night slot? Or does he bolt for another network and collect an eight-figure penalty NBC would face for reneging on his Tonight Show deal?
If O'Brien bolts, The Tonight Show would return to a format viewers saw for 17 years: an hour-long show with Leno as host, starting at 11:35 ET/PT.
NBC's move indicates that "viewers want scripted shows at 10 p.m.," says Shari Anne Brill, analyst at big ad firm Carat USA. In prime time, Leno's talk/variety hybrid was "something done at the beginning of television. Networks still need a (big) audience."
NBC Universal TV chief Jeff Gaspin acknowledged Sunday that Leno's prime-time effort didn't measure up and said he made the call to cut bait late last month: "While it was performing at an acceptable level (financially) for the network, it did not meet our affiliates' needs, and we realized we had to make a change."
The main complaint: Stations' late local newscasts, which deliver a big chunk of their profits through TV ads, were hemorrhaging viewers. And O'Brien's late-night ratings were little more than half the total Leno had claimed last season, ending NBC's 15-year run in first place in the late-night time slot.
Gaspin said his goal is to "keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy (Fallon) as part of our late-night lineup." Under the new plan, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon would move from 12:35 a.m. to 1:05. (Carson Daly's talk show, which now follows Fallon, would be canceled, though Daly would remain under contract at the network.)
But "as much as I would like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that's not true," Gaspin said. "The talks are still ongoing."
NBC expects to resolve O'Brien's fate, one way or the other, by the time the Winter Olympics begin Feb. 12. The Olympics are expected to deliver a big audience the network plans to use to promote its rebuilt prime-time and late-night schedules starting March 1.
"What's important to Jay is telling jokes at 11:30, and what was really important to Conan beyond that is having the franchise of The Tonight Show," Gaspin said. "I obviously couldn't satisfy either with 100 percent of what they wanted; that's why I came up with this compromise."
O'Brien to Fox?
NBC wouldn't discuss terms of O'Brien's contract. If he stays, he'd wind up competing not only with current rival David Letterman on CBS but would face CBS' Craig Ferguson and go head-to-head with ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, who appeals primarily to a similar audience of young men. And O'Brien almost certainly would lose even more viewers by reverting to a later time slot.
Should O'Brien leave the network, Leno would again inherit The Tonight Show, a post he never wanted to leave. O'Brien's most obvious destination would be Fox, which expressed interest in him in 2004 and does not currently program in late night except on Saturdays. (ABC says it does not plan to pursue O'Brien.)
In a statement, Fox said that "we've always been interested in late night, and we're always looking to bring great new talent to Fox."
Many Fox stations, however, earn big profits with syndicated reruns of shows such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons in late night, and they might balk at turning an hour over to the network at 11 p.m. ET/PT. That, coupled with the cost of bringing O'Brien aboard, makes such a move by him anything but a slam dunk.
O'Brien's representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday, but on Friday's show he addressed rumored changes, joking that "NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out alive gets to leave NBC. Trust me, that is an appealing proposition."
Leno, too, joked last week about reports that his prime-time show would be canceled. "I don't think there is any truth to the rumors," he told viewers. "See, it's always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place."
While hosting The Tonight Show, O'Brien has shed many of Leno's former late-night viewers. Meanwhile, Leno's prime-time audience (about 5.6 million viewers overall) was 30 percent lower than the schedule it replaced among NBC's young-adult target audience.
Many of those viewers went to basic cable channels, not to broadcast rivals, according to Nielsen research. During local newscasts, such viewers also often use their DVRs to catch up on recorded shows. It all has contributed to plummeting local newscasts on NBC's affiliates.
Gaspin said about one-third of NBC's 200 or so stations "were really hurt by it and incredibly concerned" by Leno's ratings, warning they'd act if NBC didn't.
"The drumbeat started getting louder and louder, and toward the middle of December they made it very clear they were going to start getting more vocal about their displeasure and were starting to talk about the possibility of pre-emptions," Gaspin said, referring to local affiliates' option to run their own programming rather than that provided by the network. "It was then that I realized this was not going to go well. This was going to be a PR nightmare."
Affiliates sought move
NBC considered several other options, including cutting Leno to fewer nights or keeping the prime-time show until September, but ultimately decided to wipe the slate clean sooner.
"I would have much preferred to concentrate on launching new shows than now trying to explain to people why we have an (entirely) new schedule. I would have much preferred to wait until September," Gaspin said. But "we needed to signal to stations that we were willing to act."
Gaspin denied the move was hastened by cable giant Comcast's agreement last month to acquire a controlling interest in NBC Universal, which faces regulatory hurdles that could be complicated by station unrest.
Many advertisers were dubious about Leno's prime-time prospects in the first place. They questioned why NBC would go through with a plan to unseat the king of late night, a plan put in place by Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal's CEO.
"I was kind of lukewarm to the whole idea," Brill said. "They really hurt themselves by doing this, but they hurt themselves the last two years by cutting back on development" of new series. "There were a lot of forces at work helping to create the situation they're in."
Even Jerry Seinfeld, the Leno Show's first guest, weighed in Sunday, saying it was "the right idea at the wrong time. I'm proud of NBC that they had the guts to try something so original."
Gaspin agreed that other programming failures compounded the debacle. "Had we been stronger (from) 8 to 10 (p.m.), perhaps Jay would have been stronger at 10 and the affiliates wouldn't have had as much an issue," he said in an interview. The network's ability to develop lasting dramas also was limited by turning over five prime-time hours a week to Leno.
Gannett, parent of USA TODAY, owns 11 NBC stations and delivers the most viewers for the network apart from NBC-owned outlets. Dave Lougee, president of Gannett's broadcast group, said bumping Leno back to late night was "a move that needed to take place," since his low ratings "impacted us like everybody. We're very appreciative that Jay is sticking around in his old time slot and very hopeful that Conan will stay with the network as well. They're both great talents."
Michael Fiorile, president of NBC's affiliates board, called Leno's exit from prime time "a great move" for local stations. "We admire their willingness to innovate, and their willingness to change course when it didn't work for us."
It's unclear whether the public profiles of Leno and O'Brien will suffer as a result of NBC's musical chairs. That won't be known until the dust settles and viewers re-embrace the hosts - or don't.
To replace Leno at 10 starting March 1, Gaspin said, NBC is likely to add two more hours of scripted dramas (it can use repeats of Friday Night Lights and Law&Order: Criminal Intent, which now first air on other networks), along with an expanded Dateline NBC. Other current series, such as Law&Order: Special Victims Unit, could shift to later slots.
For fall, NBC ordered seven drama pilots Sunday as potential replacements, including series from high-profile producers David E. Kelley, Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams and remakes of Prime Suspect and Rockford Files.
Gaspin said NBC is spending 30 percent to 35 percent more on new-program development than in recent seasons and promises viewers will see "high-quality, more traditional NBC programming" next fall with "smart, sophisticated and fun content." After years of audience erosion, "I think we have a shot at actually going up."
Jonathan Littman, who heads Bruckheimer's TV division, welcomed the Leno news.
"Any time you can get more scripted programs on the air, the better," he said, noting that a typical drama employs 200 workers.
"A lot of people really saw this as having a pretty negative impact on our business," said CBS programming chief Nina Tassler, who called Leno's move to prime time "an experiment that obviously did not work."