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NBC’s late night labyrinth

Will Leno move back to 11:30? And what about Conan?

NBC has a late night mess on its hands.

Similar to the game-changing moment in 1993 when David Letterman walked away from the Peacock after Jay Leno scored “The Tonight Show,” Conan O’Brien may be close to doing the exact same thing.

Insiders were confirming late Thursday that Leno had been offered — and had accepted — a return to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, where the host dominated the late night wars for nearly 15 years.

Leno is expected to return to his late-night chair following the Winter Olympics at the end of February.

The attention now turns to Conan O’Brien, who has a difficult decision in front of him.

O’Brien’s handlers are likely mulling all of their options — and pitching their client to both Fox, which currently doesn’t have a late night franchise on the weeknights, and ABC, which would have to move “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” out of the way.

But neither network appears immediately likely to make a play for O’Brien, insiders said. What’s more, Broadcasting and Cable reported that NBC has the option to bench O’Brien for the remainder of his contract but keep paying him.

If O’Brien ultimately decides to stay, “The Jay Leno Show” will air at 11:35 p.m. for half an hour (and focus mostly on its monologue), followed by “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” at 12:05 a.m. and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05 a.m.

But if O’Brien negotiates an early release and bolts the Peacock, then Leno will once again host a one-hour “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” each night.

Leno has said that wouldn’t say no if NBC gave him back the slot — and indeed, it appears he has agreed to the new arrangement, even if it means hosting just a half-hour show each night.

For O’Brien, the red-headed host’s options outside NBC may be limited. “Nightline” is performing well for ABC, and the network appears to have backed off its once-likely plans to dump the late night newsmag.

The scenario at Fox is more tricky. The network has mulled getting back into the late night game, having been run out of the daypart after 1993’s disasterous “Chevy Chase Show.”

But Fox’s owned stations and affils do quite nicely with off-net syndie fare in late night. Stations, which are able to sell much more ad time in those sitcom repeats, might not be eager to clear O’Brien — particularly given his lukewarm performance vs. David Letterman at NBC.

The host could also consider late-night first-run syndication — where no late-night player has really worked since Arsenio Hall — or cable.

NBC’s likely counting on O’Brien ultimately realizing that there are few other options in late night. If O’Brien’s willing to take his lumps, he would still host the storied “Tonight Show” franchise, and he’d still air a half hour earlier than he did on “Late Night” — and would likely be the midnight victor vs. “Jimmy Kimmel.”

But it would also require moving past an awkward late night shuffle.

Meanwhile, in moving Leno back to late night, NBC will suddenly have five hours worth of primetime air to fill. And given that NBC has already scheduled “Parenthood,” handed back “Southland” and reduced “Day One” to a limited run series, its hour-long cupboard is pretty bare this midseason.

Peacock insiders argue that they managed to do just fine when faced with a similar dilemma during the writers’ strike.

Net will likely move some of its dramas, like “Law and Order: SVU,” back to 10 p.m. Other holes might be filled by reality shows, repeats and “Dateline NBC.” Repurposed episodes of USA and Bravo series might also be in the offering.

For next season, NBC already has aggressive plans to produce up to 18 pilots this development season. But that new crop of series won’t be ready until fall.

That’s because NBC wasn’t ready to make such drastic changes this soon, especially since the net has long said it would give “The Jay Leno Show” at least a year in its 10 p.m. slot before making any changes.

Peacock has also long argued that “Leno’s” performance, while low, still met its financial targets.

But not only was “Leno” performing poorly, but it crippled NBC’s owned and affiliated stations’ 11 p.m. newscasts. What’s more, the domino effect of the Peacock’s primetime perf spread not only to Leno at 10 p.m. but to O’Brien at 11:35.

O’Brien’s edgier comedy was always seen as a tough sell for Leno’s more middle-of-the-road fanbase, and NBC was bracing for a ratings drop. But add the loss of Leno’s “Tonight Show” audience to NBC’s depressed primetime lead-in, and the “Tonight Show” was smacked with an even bigger drop than expected.

That left NBC with a weakened Leno, a weakened “Tonight Show,” a weakened O’Brien and even a weakened “Late Night,” which had been taken over by Jimmy Fallon.

Affiliates, which early on preached patience, have gotten increasingly vocal with their anger over “Leno’s” and NBC’s primetime performance.

Following the November sweeps, it was clear that the show’s 10 p.m. lead-in ratings have crippled the Peacock’s owned and affiliated stations’ late newscast ratings. (Such an impact had been predicted, yet still stung for stations.)

NBC had managed to squash Boston affiliate WHDH’s attempts last year to pre-empt “Leno” with a 10 p.m. newscast. But if several stations joined arms to dump Leno, the network wouldn’t be able to retaliate as effectively. And a revolt was brewing.

As a result, under pressure NBC quickly started hammering out this new late night scenario — which nonetheless came with several challenges (including what’s believed to be a massive, eight-figure payout for O’Brien) .

The idea of Leno back at 11:35 gained steam among NBC bosses, who were hashing out the fate of the primetime “Jay Leno Show,” in recent weeks.

NBC appeared more ready to cut O’Brien loose than it was last year, when some industry wags first suggested that NBC halt its “Tonight Show” succession plan and keep the top-rated Leno in place.

At the time, Peacock execs ultimately decided that they’d already gone too far down the road in adhering to the plan, first formulated more than five years ago, and grooming O’Brien as Leno’s successor.

NBC execs also didn’t want to find themselves competing against O’Brien on Fox or ABC, and didn’t want to write that $40 million kill fee to the long-time “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” host.

But when it came down to Leno vs. O’Brien, now that NBC has seen how both perform at 11:30, the network was ready to put its support behind Leno.

Peacock finally decided to pull the trigger just in the past few days, and has been meeting with both Leno and O’Brien and their reps.

Network is set to hold an affiliate meeting later this month at NATPE, and will likely have its late-night plan figured out by then.

NBC isn’t confirming any of this just yet, but it won’t be able to duck the issue for long.

The Peacock faces the press on Sunday as part of the TV Critics Association’s winter press tour — but its unclear whether any of this will be officially resolved before then (O’Brien, for one, probably won’t have an answer for NBC by then), and as a result the conglom’s recently promoted TV chieftain Jeff Gaspin will have to artfully pick his words.

The network itself was only confirming that “The Jay Leno Show” hadn’t been canceled, and that it hoped to keep O’Brien in the fold.

“We remain committed to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC,” the network said in a statement. “He is a valued part of our late-night line-up, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television.”

The net’s earlier statement about Leno, meanwhile, was just as carefully worded: “Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay’s show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance.”

If O’Brien balks, there’s always a chance NBC may also decide that it do
esn’t want to hand-deliver a lucrative late night franchise to a rival like Fox and News Corp. — and could instead still aim toward another scenario that could somehow keep both Leno and O’Brien in the Peacock stable.

Other options that have been mentioned in the past include striking a deal with affils to move their local newscasts down to 10 p.m.; that would allow for “The Jay Leno Show” at 10:35 and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” at 11:35. (That’s been dismissed by net execs, however, who are loathe to give up an hour of primetime).

Had NBC opted to keep Leno in prime, NBC might have considered decreasing “Jay Leno” to just three nights a week in prime, or struck a deal with Leno to do an abbreviated version of his show at 8 p.m. Leno, however, has said he has no interest in doing a show that early.

But with the timeslot switcheroo now inevitable, Leno had some fun at NBC’s expense on his Thursday night “Jay Leno Show.”

“The Justice Department announced they will conduct an anti-trust review of Comcast’s proposed deal to merge with NBC,” he quipped. “An anti-trust review. Which is the relationship I have with NBC — Anti-trust… What does NBC stand for? Never believe your contract.”

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