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NBC's Gaspin: 'Back to basics'

January 10, 2010 | 12:44 pm

NBC was perhaps “a little too early” launching its revolution on the broadcast business model. That was the assessment of Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal’s recently installed chairman of television entertainment, this morning when he unfurled his “back to basics” strategy for healing the wounded peacock network.

ReDOPOST For years, his boss, NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, has stressed that the broadcast business model was fundamentally broken and NBC had the smarts and the tools to fix it. But with NBC’s prime-time schedule in smoldering ruins and the network’s confirmed retreat of Jay Leno back to his longtime home at 11:35 p.m. -- leaving gaping holes in the prime-time schedule -- it is up to Gaspin to restore some of the glory, and the profits, that were once associated with NBC.

"For us right now, instead of trying to reinvent, going back to basics is probably the smartest play," Gaspin said.

The more modest Gaspin -- in measured tones -- said maybe the business wasn’t so broken after all. He made it clear that he was in charge now and that, under his watch, NBC would exhibit a dramatically different temperament and mentality from the tumultuous two years that Ben Silverman was at the network, when NBC burn through hundreds of millions of dollars in failed programming while Silverman developed a reputation for a short attention span and missing meetings. There were also the broad proclamations that NBC was less concerned about ratings than profit margins.

In the waning minutes of the 45-minute news conference at the Television Critics Assn. meeting in Pasadena, Gaspin was asked by a veteran reporter: “Whose fault is it that the network is in such sad shape in prime time? Is it Ben Silverman? Is it Jeff Zucker? Does the network as a company regret the arrogant pose that it has had over the years?”

The low-key Gaspin, perhaps only half-kidding, replied: “That’s an awesome question.”

The standing-room-only ballroom filled with reporters -- and nearly as many NBC Universal staffers lined up against the walls -- howled with laughter. It seemed the battle-weary NBC executives enjoyed Gaspin’s lighthearted response even more than the reporters from across the country.

Gaspin also exhibited more candor -- and provided more information -- than NBC executives have in the recent past. He explained the chronology of the decision to move Leno out of prime time. The discontent of affiliate TV station owners was building throughout the fall and reached a crescendo in December when smaller stations received their disappointing ratings from the November sweeps, he said.

“The drumbeat kept getting louder and louder,” said Gaspin, who took over all of NBC programming last summer. “Toward the middle of December, they [the affiliate stations] made it very clear that they were going to be more vocal about their displeasure. It was then when I realized that it was just not going to go well if we kept things in place. ... They are our partners. Even though [10 p.m. Leno show] was doing OK for us, I just made the tough call.”

Gaspin was asked whether Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien were now "damaged goods" and, if so, how NBC was going to recover. Said Gaspin: "I think just time is the answer to your question."

-- Meg James

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NBC's Gaspin sets Leno's exit from prime and return to late night

Photo: Jeff Gaspin. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times