NBC's endorsement of Conan O'Brien leaves plenty of wiggle room
NBC executives spent most of the day in lockdown figuring how to spin their plans to get Jay Leno out of prime time and back to late night.
Feeling pressure from affiliates, who have been griping for months about how Leno's 10 p.m performance is hurting their late news and bottom line, NBC is scrambling to put together a strategy to appease them and keep Leno on the payroll.
The odd man out in all this may be Conan O'Brien. NBC wants O'Brien to stay, but his show would move to 12:05 and he'd be following Leno again. The only difference would be that Leno's show would be only 30 minutes while O'Brien would keep his hour and probably the title of "Tonight Show" host. (For complete coverage of NBC's Leno-O'Brien flip-flop see our story here.)
In a statement, NBC said, "We remain committed to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC. 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."
What NBC didn't say was it wanted to keep O'Brien in his current time slot.
People close to the situation expect all the details to be hammered out over the next few days. NBC executives are scheduled to meet with reporters on Sunday at the semiannual Television Critics Tour, and if they don't have an announcement then, they most certainly will when they meet with their affiliates in New York in three weeks.
O'Brien's best move may be to sit tight. Fox was interested in him years ago but a senior executive there indicated that may not be the case anymore. ABC is getting by with "Nightline" and Jimmy Kimmel and may not want to spend the bucks necessary to land O'Brien. Plus, Leno can't go on forever can he?
If all goes as planned, Leno could be back in late night as early as March. The network will have to rustle up some programming for the 10 p.m. hour. Look for lots of episodes of "Dateline" and "Law & Order."
If only NBC had this much drama in front of the cameras, its ratings might be higher.
Meanwhile, lots of Conan fans are complaining on Twitter about O'Brien possibly losing his 11:30 time slot and blaming Comcast, the cable giant that is in the process of taking control of NBC Universal. Sorry folks, you can't blame the cable company for this mess.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Conan O'Brien. Credit: Frederick Brown / Getty Images