Net wants to keep all three latenight show hosts

NBC made it official on Sunday morning: “The Jay Leno Show” primetime experiment is dead.

Leno will be gone from primetime by Feb. 12, when NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics gets underway.

“While performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliate needs,” NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin told reporters at NBC’s portion of the TV Critics Assn. press tour. “We realized we had to make a change.”

Gaspin confirmed that he had asked Leno to host a half-hour show at 11:35, followed by “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” at 12:05 and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05. It’s unclear whether Carson Daly would remain in late night, but unlikely — as affiliates take over at 2:05 a.m.

“My goal is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of the late night lineup,” Gaspin said.

With Leno out of prime, Gaspin now expects to see a ratings bump this spring.

“It’s going to cost more, but NBC is going to be fine,” he said. “The ratings will go up and the revenue will go up.”

Scrubbing Leno from primetime and picking up 18 pilots this spring reps Gaspin’s first push for an NBC ratings recovery since taking over the network a little more than five months ago.

“I don’t care how quickly it happens as long as it happens,” he said. “I want to see progress with our schedule and progress with our ratings. As long as a arrow going up as opposed to the side or down I’ll be happy.”

That primetime revival may start with a flurry of pilots that the network officially ordered on Sunday, including new dramas from David E. Kelley, Jerry Bruckheimer, Hank Steinberg and Cindy Chupack (see separate story).

But more immediately, Gaspin must first find a resolution to his late night conundrum. Exec said he expects to have a new lineup in place, O’Brien or no O’Brien, by the time the Olympic Games start.

Talks with Leno and Conan O’Brien will resume on Monday after the hosts take the weekend to digest the upheaval. Gaspin wouldn’t comment on specific negotiations.

“When I asked (O’Brien) to move to 12:05 I made it clear ‘The Tonight Show’ was moving with them,” Gaspin said. “What’s important to Jay is telling jokes at 11:30, and what’s important to Conan beyond that was having the franchise of ‘The Tonight Show.’ I couldn’t satisfy either with everything they wanted, which is why I came up with this compromise.”

Leno is believed to have already signed on to the plan — but O’Brien’s decision remains up in the air. The “Tonight Show” host has a lot to digest in making his decision, including the value of sticking with the “Tonight Show” brand, even at a later midnight time, vs. what opportunities may or may not exist at Fox, on cable or in syndication.

In his initial meetings with Leno, O’Brien and Fallon, Gaspin contended that all three “were incredibly gracious and professional. They all said they understood the incredibly difficult situation I was in.”

Beyond that, however, the exec declined to comment on the hosts’ reactions.

Gaspin said he had to make a quick move after NBC’s affiliates threatened to revolt. According to the exec, as much as one-third of the Peacock’s affils were expected to start pre-empting “The Jay Leno Show.”

Gaspin said the conversations with affiliates over “Leno” started in early November and went right through the holidays.

“The intensity of the dialogue got stronger,” he said. “They were our partners in this… That drove a lot of the pressure.”

For NBC, the net would have otherwise been willing to wait, Gaspin said. Although “Leno” was hurting the net’s ratings perf at 10 p.m., the exec said the show “was working at financial levels. We were making money at 10 p.m.” The show even saw a minor ratings boost in December.

But affils got particularly aggressive after November local ratings came in — and in some cases, their No. 1 newscasts were now No. 3. Gaspin said many stations were upset when they lost a larger percentage at 11 p.m. than they thought they would.

“I would have liked nothing more than to give it a 52-week try,” Gaspin said, referring to NBC’s original promise to give Leno a year to perform in the 10 p.m. slot. “Toward the middle of December the drumbeat got louder. (Affiliates) made it clear they would be more vocal about their displeasure. Then they started talking about preemption.”

Gaspin said he discussed several alternate scenarios — some that have been reported, such as Leno at three days a week, and some that Gaspin said have so far not been publicly mentioned.

One thing that apparently wasn’t discussed: Forcing Leno to completely revamp the critic-unfriendly “Jay Leno Show.”

“I don’t think there was that much more they could do,” Gaspin said of the “Leno” production team. “They were doing the show that Jay wanted to do. When you’ve been doing the same thing for 17 years, it takes a while to do something different.”

Gaspin said the network also misjudged the viability of “Leno” as a second choice for viewers looking for something to watch at 10 p.m.

“There are so many other choices that people thought were better,” he said, pointing to cable dramas and digital video recorders.

Gaspin said he believed the 10 p.m. slot was still challenged, given that NBC lost 9/10th of a ratings point at 10 p.m. this season — but that both ABC and CBS didn’t improve in the hour either.

By the end of December, Gaspin said he called his boss — NBC Universal topper Jeff Zucker — and told him “that I didn’t want to wait any longer.”

“I said, I think it’s time,” Gaspin said. “He challenged me all along the way, and in the end, after the answers, agreed that this was the best option.”

Nonetheless, Gaspin added that the decision pained Zucker — “This was not an easy decision to reverse.”

Many pundits believe that NBC also wanted to make a quick change in order to silence the affils at a time when they might impact Comcast’s acquisition of a controlling interest in NBC.

Gaspin, however, denied that the regulatory approval process played a role in this change.

“Absolutely zero,” he said. “They have nothing to do with the business decisions we make. And they won’t until regulatory approval.”

In pulling the trigger now, Gaspin said he wanted to avoid a public battle with the affiliates, which could have gotten ugly.

“It becomes a PR issue,” Gaspin said, noting that he didn’t want to see the affiliates start attacking the network in the press.

“That would have damaged Jay and it would have damaged NBC,” he said.

Gaspin admitted that news of the change, starting with the leaks on Thursday that led to the current debacle, was not handled the way he would have preferred.

“We never do anything 100 percent perfectly,” he said. “I would have liked it to hold a little longer.”

Cheering the Leno bump out of primetime on Sunday was NBC affiliates board chairman Michael Fiorile, who called the decision “a great move for the affiliates, the network, and, most importantly, the viewers.”

“We admire (NBC’s) willingness to innovate, and their willingness to change course when it didn’t work for us,” Fiorile wrote in a statement, thanking the network for “being so responsive to the needs of the affiliates.”

NBC is now still figuring out its scheduling plans once Leno is pushed out of prime.

Leno’s primetime departure means the net will program at least two more hours of scripted series, as well as another reality entry, an expanded “Dateline NBC” schedule and some repeats, Gaspin said.

“We’re going to wait until the last second until I’m told by our marketing department that listings are due and ads need to go to print,” he said.

Among its options, beyond the previously announced launch of “Parenthood”: “Friday Night Lights” will also be available to NBC starting March 1, while the net still has runs of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

Shows that NBC won’t have at its disposal are “Southland,” which the Peacock gave up (and is now headed to TNT) and “Day One,” which at first was cut to a four-hour miniseries, and now has been sliced further to just a two-hour telepic.

In other NBC news, Gaspin confirmed that NBC had scrapped its “infront” plans — in which the net presented its sked to advertisers weeks before its rivals — and would return to a presentation the traditional week of the network upfronts.

That means NBC will now present to advertisers the morning of Monday, May 17. Fox is scheduled to present that afternoon; net will likely not be pleased with having to share the day with the Peacock.

“That will give us more time to evaluate (pilots), something we couldn’t do with the timing of the Infront,” he said.

Also on Sunday, NBC announced that Howie Mandel — who’s become a staple at the Peacock — would replace David Hasselhoff as a judge on “America’s Got Talent.” Mandel’s Alevy production shingle has an overall deal with the Peacock.

And the network said it would launch Jerry Seinfeld’s reality series “The Marriage Ref” (hosted by Tom Papa) would air as a sneak preview on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 10:30 p.m., following the Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony.

Scheduling reps the first time an Olympics Closing Ceremony has been utilized to launch a new show.

Earlier in the day, Olympics chieftain Dick Ebersol admitted that the Vancouver Games would lose money for NBC — the first time in his memory that has happened.

“Sales were slow in spring and early summer because of the economic recession,” he said. “Suddenly in the last four months they’ve taken off. We’re well on the way to doing the same number as Torino and Salt Lake City. We will for the first time lose money on an Olympics, but it won’t be because the sales didn’t come around.”

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