NBC sets Jay Leno's prime-time exit and return to late night; still no deal with Conan O'Brien
Jay Leno's prime-time career on NBC will end on Feb. 12. Whether Conan O'Brien's late-night career with the network will also be ending next month remains to be seen.
Speaking to reporters at the semiannual Television Critics Assn.'s press tour, NBC Universal Television Chairman Jeff Gaspin confirmed the network will move Leno back to 11:35 p.m. when the Winter Olympics concludes at the end of February.
Although Leno's weeknight 10 p.m show was performing at an acceptable level for the network, "it did not meet our affiliates' needs," Gaspin said. NBC's big affiliate groups, including broadcasters Hearst Corp. and Gannett Co., had been very vocal about how Leno's show was hurting their late local news. A movement was afoot among the groups to push Leno's show from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. and put local news in the 10 p.m. slot.
"This was not going to go well if that was the case," Gaspin said regarding the threat of preemptions from affiliates. NBC's audience had dropped about 30% in the three months since Leno went on at 10 p.m. The effect on the affiliates, he said, "forces them to force our hand."
Gaspin said the network still is trying to finalize deals with Leno, O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon. NBC's hope is to put Leno back at 11:35 p.m., followed by O'Brien at 12:05 a.m and then Fallon at 1:05 a.m.
"As much as I'd like to tell you we have a done deal, the talks are still going on," Gaspin said. Leno is on board with NBC's shift in direction. O'Brien has not yet been sold on the idea of his show being pushed to 12:05. Gaspin said Leno and O'Brien have been "incredibly gracious and professional" about the whole situation.
Although O'Brien would technically keep the title of host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," a 12:05 a.m. program was not what he signed on for and his camp may try to test the waters. There may be costly penalties to him and NBC if he decides to go that route. Fox has whispered it may be interested in O'Brien, but that network would have a tough time persuading their affiliates to jump into late night. Fox may just be trying to make a complicated situation for NBC even more difficult.
ABC has indicated it is not interested at the moment in changing its late-night lineup of "Nightline" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
Gaspin said Comcast Corp., the cable giant that is buying a controlling stake in NBC from parent company General Electric Co., had no role in the Leno-O'Brien decision.
-- Joe Flint
Photo: NBC's Jeff Gaspin. Credit: NBC Universal