And just as they did in 1992, when Jay Leno and David Letterman battled for Johnny Carson’s chair, NBC execs opted to stick with Leno.
In crafting his original late-night compromise — moving Leno back to 11:35 and “Tonight” with O’Brien at 12:05 — Gaspin made sure to get Leno’s signoff on the deal first. Gaspin said the move was strictly a “business decision.”
“Based on business fact, the ‘Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ was scheduled to lose quite a bit of money in 2010,” Gaspin said. “If you look at the ratings in households, NBC is down 14 percent, while Conan is down 49%. In adults 18-49, NBC was down 16% but ‘Tonight’ was down 23%.”
Those figures don’t include the massive ratings bump that O’Brien has seen in the past few days, Gaspin admitted — but that doesn’t change his outlook on the resolution.
“These were the numbers when I made the decision,” he said. “When you see those kinds of stats, plus you know Jay used to win regularly there, and you have a problem at 10 p.m. with the affiliates forcing your hand, you have to come up with a decision.”
Gaspin said he believed the plan — which he outlined to the press during the TV Critics Assn. press tour last week — “was a reasonable compromise based on these facts.”
Yet once O’Brien announced, via a statement to the press, that he would refuse a move to 12:05, Gaspin admitted that the network didn’t come up with an alternative compromise.
“I suppose there could have been other possibilities, but nobody actually discussed those possibilities,” he said. “The only choice for Conan was keeping the ‘Tonight Show’ at 11:35. We never got around to any other (options).”
But the network also didn’t push another alternative on Leno, whose contract had a time slot guarantee for 10 p.m. In the mind of NBC execs, Leno had already agreed to a compromise — producing a 30-minute “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35.
“He was willing to compromise, which maybe gave me the false optimism that Conan would agree to this as well,” Gaspin said.
Once O’Brien said he wouldn’t accept the time slot demotion, Peacock execs said they didn’t make a move to try and force him into taking the 12:05 slot.
“We decided it was more important to move on and not have this drag on even longer than it did,” Gaspin said.
The exec added that he had hoped to keep both hosts at NBC — “I know how valuable both Conan and Jay are to the NBC brand in late night.”
In exchange for the $32 million payout, O’Brien made several concessions that will allow for a cooling off period.
That’s believed to include a disaparagement clause that will limit what O’Brien can say in the press or on TV, as well as a non-compete window that will keep him off the air until at least September.
Both apparently won’t be too hard for O’Brien to follow: He’ll be off TV after Friday, and it will take until at least September to get a TV deal done and a new show on the air.
Meanwhile, insiders now confirm O’Brien’s camp’s contention that there is no “offset” clause in the deal. Indeed, even if O’Brien eventually signs with Fox or another net and receives a new salary, he’ll still get that $32 million payout — as long as he abides by the agreement.
As for Leno, Gaspin and NBC Entertainment chairman Marc Graboff said they believed old habits will return and “The Tonight Show” will eventually win back that host’s audience. Despite the frenzy of the past 15 days, the execs don’t think Leno’s fans have paid much attention to the late night crisis, or have soured on the host because of it.