NBC must walk fine line not to upset fans even more

In moving Jay Leno back to “The Tonight Show,” NBC now faces a marketing challenge.

Peacock execs must quickly relaunch “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” — which bows a little more than a month from now — but at the same time engage in some serious public relations damage control.

“I think there will be a little bit of a backlash,” said one rival TV marketing exec. “Jay’s image has been altered a bit.”

Not only do Conan O’Brien fans find Leno partly to blame for NBC’s failed late night compromise (which triggered O’Brien’s departure), but Leno’s late night crown may have been tarnished by his lackluster 10 p.m. performance.

Peacock has already begun to reposition Leno and the “Tonight Show,” starting with Leno’s address to his audience on Monday night’s “The Jay Leno Show.”

In characterizing himself as just a pawn in the whole messy affair, his fans will likely be forgiving.

“If people liked him at 11:35 and they were happy with him, I don’t think they’ll be changing their viewing habits just because Jay potentially did something wrong,” said the competing exec.

It’s still unclear, however, where Leno’s 11:35 p.m. audience went (some may have just gone to bed earlier), or if they’ll restore their old habits once he’s back.

“It’s always difficult to relaunch things,” said another rival marketing exec. “TV is a lot like a restaurant. If you go there and have a bad meal, it’s difficult to get people back in.”

Given the amount of coverage centered on NBC’s late night debacle, Leno’s core audience will likely get the message that the host is back in his old time slot.

But NBC must walk a fine line in promoting the news to the rest of the world.

The sudden turn of events may be dizzying to viewers, which were inundated with the big-budget launches of O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” and Leno’s primetime strip just months ago.

Now, as O’Brien’s exit from “The Tonight Show” becomes official — expected to finally happen Wednesday — the Peacock has some explaining to do.

One rival exec suggested that NBC take a page out of the new ad campaign recently launched by Domino’s, which is confessing in new spots that their pizza wasn’t so hot — and promise to now make them tastier.

A lot can be learned by admitting what was wrong,” the exec said.

Another exec agreed, arguing that the network can’t just trumpet the triumphant return of Leno to 11:35.

That may annoy O’Brien fans who are still watching NBC — particularly its Thursday night comedies, which share a young adult audience profile with O’Brien. (Conventional wisdom says that “Parks and Recreation” and “30 Rock” fans are more likely to be Team Conan.)

Plus, a traditional campaign welcoming Leno “back home” might be seen as rubbing salt in the wound, even by Leno fans. That’s why most observers agree that NBC needs to go the self-depricating route.

In a way, the network is already doing that — by letting both Leno and O’Brien pluck the Peacock every night for the past two weeks.

“After such a public move that was essentially an utter and devastating failure, you can’t pretend it never happened,” a rival network exec said. “And you need to make sure Jay looks like the unassuming guy that people think he is.”

NBC execs hope the Winter Olympics will serve as a bit of a buffer, and as a cooling-off period to the late night lunacy. The Olympics will also give the Peacock a massive platform to reposition Leno and “The Tonight Show.”

In his interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose on Monday, NBC U topper Jeff Zucker predicted that the kerfuffle would eventually blow over.

“We move from story to story,” Zucker said. “Life will go on.”

On Tuesday, lawyers once again delayed a final resolution to the O’Brien/NBC divorce as they hammered out final deal points — including severance package details for his show’s staff. An announcement is now expected on Wednesday morning.

“I’m just waiting for this to be done,” said one exhasperated insider close to the talks.

The bizarre nature of the whole Late Night Crisis — now entering its 13th day — took another strange turn on Tuesday, as an anonymous troublemaker whipped up a brief media frenzy by registering the web doman ConanonFox.com.

The site was registered to the “Intellectual Property Department of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation,” and included a photo of O’Brien and even a logo.

But the logo was poorly photoshopped — and even if News Corp. were to quietly register a Conan-related domain, common sense would argue that they wouldn’t do it with their own company name, or put up a Twitter account when the company hasn’t even begun talks with the host.

The site nonetheless fooled a handful of media organizations, until Fox stepped in and confirmed that it was a hoax. The Twitter account was suspended soon after.

As for O’Brien, the host continued to prep his final week of episodes. Guests this week, as announced on Monday by O’Brien, include Adam Sandler, Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell (who was on O’Brien’s first “Tonight Show,” and will now be on his last).

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