NBC has admitted defeat, and will be closing up shop on their Jay Leno prime-time programming strip. Network bosses surrendered the experiment early under intense pressure from network affiliates who have seen their crucial late-news ratings devastated by Leno's weak lead-in.
At today's NBC session of the winter Television Critics Association event, Peacock entertainment bosses Jeff Gaspin and Angela Bromstad confirmed that The Jay Leno Show is definitely done at 10 p.m. and stated that the network has pitched an alternate, pushed-back, late-night schedule to Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon. As of this weekend, no deals are done, and the network, the hosts, their staffs and us fans all remain in wait-and-see mode.
The news of Leno's departure from 10 p.m. was gratifying, at the very least, for the affiliates. Michael Fiorile, chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board, said in a statement, "This is a great move for the affiliates, the network and, most importantly, the viewers. Speaking on behalf of the board I thank the network for keeping the lines of communication so open, and for being so responsive to the needs of the affiliates. We admire their willingness to innovate, and their willingness to change course when it didn't work for us. We were delighted to collaborate on the launch of the 10 p.m. show, and we look forward to continuing to work with Jeff Zucker and the entire network leadership team as we set a new direction, build on our long history together, and contribute to the impressive legacy of NBC."
So when will we see the last of Leno in prime time, where is Leno going in late-night, and what programs might replace the failed talk-show experiment at 10 p.m.?
Here's what we learned from the suits at the center of the controversy:
NBC Executive Session Liveblog, Winter 2010 Television Critics Association Press Tour
10:04 a.m.: Jeff Gaspin says, "I can confirm what many of you have been reporting. Beginning Feb. 12, we will no longer air The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. While it was performing at acceptable levels for the networks, it did not meet our affiliates' needs." He says he wants Jay Leno at 11:35 p.m., Conan O'Brien at 12:05 a.m., and Jimmy Fallon at 1:05 a.m. Gaspin continues, "As much as I would like to tell you we have a done deal, talks are still ongoing."
10:09 a.m.: When asked if he's prepared to make a hard decision to let either Leno, O'Brien or Fallon walk if things aren't resolved by the time the network's Vancouver Winter Olympics programming wraps at the end of February, Gaspin says, "I hope and expect that before the Olympics begin we will have everything set. I can't imagine we won't have everything set before that." Translation: Gaspin really, really hopes he can keep all three horses in the barn, but the barn is not currently locked.
10:10 a.m.: So what does the NBC schedule look like now that 10 p.m. is back? Gaspin says, "I did think about where this might net and my guess is that this will net two more hours of scripted TV and one more hour of reality," plus what he calls "backfill," meaning repeats and/or miscellaneous episodes of Dateline NBC.
10:14 a.m.: According to the "proposal" currently on the table, Conan will still officially host something called The Tonight Show, even if it airs at 12:05 a.m. instead of 11:30. Gaspin later elaborates that the title of "Tonight Show host" remains important to Conan, while Leno just wants to "tell jokes at 11:30 p.m."
10:16 a.m.: A reporter questions why NBC canceled The Jay Leno Show outright rather than perhaps drastically remodelling the look and feel of the series? Gaspin hints that The Jay Leno Show producers likely believed they were doing something different than they did on The Tonight Show, but admits that that might not have been experience of the audience. He says that with Jay having 17 years of late-night experience behind him, "I think [the producers] were doing the show Jay was comfortable doing."
10:17 a.m.: So why did the Leno experiment fail? Gaspin says the company thought a "joinable program" would be a strong second choice for viewers at 10 p.m., but there were just too many other programs that people thought were better. Gaspin calls 10 p.m. an hour of "intense competition." It turns out, lo and behold, that something "easily joinable" was not the audience's first or second choice.
10:20 a.m.: Gaspin says Conan and Jimmy were "incredibly gracious and professional" about the news they were being edged out over.
10:23 a.m.: Creative chief Bromstad valiantly testifies that upcoming shows from J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer are part of a "very strong" development slate. Implication: A turnaround is just around the corner! Promises, promises. Er, we mean, "Good luck, Peacock!"
10:24 a.m.: Gaspin declines to say if either Jay, Conan and Jimmy have accepted the proposed new deal or to comment on how they reacted in general, other than the aforementioned "incredibly gracious and professional" business.
10:27 a.m.: A reporter wonders: How quickly can the network recover from its overcommitment to Leno? Gaspin answers: "I almost don't care how quickly it happens, so long as it happens."
10:31 a.m.: So what does NBC have to offer? Gaspin says that they are "number one in news" (citing Today, Dateline and the nightly news with good ol' Brian Williams), he mentions NFL football and the Olympics for sports, but "everyone knows we are struggling in prime time." In the network's prime-time winners column, he lists The Biggest Loser, The Office, 30 Rock and "two promising new comedies," Community and Parks & Recreation. He adds, "And we still have the Law & Order franchise, but beyond that, we have to work harder. I'd like to see the ratings higher."
10:32 a.m.: Will Heroes be renewed? Angela Bromstad says, "We really love that show and Tim Kring." She says they will be meeting with Kring to hear his season-five pitch shortly, compare it with their pilot/development slate, and make an official decision closer to spring about whether "that's a show that could come back for us." She claims Heroes remains strong in the ratings at 8 p.m. As for possible regrets about cutting Southland loose, she says she personally loved it but that she thinks after the ratings falloff last spring, it turned out to be better suited for a cable network.
10:38 a.m.: Angela says it's "highly possible" that the L&O mothership will go beyond this year. NBC has pitched an L.A.-based Law & Order which they say Dick Wolf "affectionately calls" LOLA. Interesting that NBC canceled Los Angeles-based crime show Southland from beloved producer John Wells but then requested a similar product from beloved producer Wolf.
10:39 a.m.: Bromstad declines to blame either Ben Silverman or Jeff Zucker for past "arrogance" and for getting the network into dire straits. The suits onstage reference the fact that Zucker did, after all, get them their jobs, so they probably won't be throwing him under the bus anytime soon.
10:44 a.m.: Last but not least, a reporter asks why Conan O'Brien should trust that NBC won't pull the rug out from under him again in six months? Gaspin says that the move to and from 10 p.m. is "such a unique set of circumstances" and that he "doesn't expect another upheaval like we've had."
And that's all, folks. Check back shortly for more detailed answers from Bromstad about which of your favorite current shows might be coming back when. All in all, Gaspin and Bromstad survived their grilling with flying colors by appearing humble and having a sense of humor about their rather sour situation.
Do you think Jay, Conan and Jimmy Fallon should take NBC's suggested deal? Share your take in the comments.
(Originally published Jan. 10, 2010, at 9:53 a.m. PT)
Follow Kristin Dos Santos on Twitter, @kristinalert.