NBC Confirms Jay Leno Is Moving Back To Late Night

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VIA: New York Times

PASADENA, Calif. — NBC confirmed Sunday what the television world already knew — that the network would end Jay Leno’s prime-time show in one month and return him to 11:35 p.m., bumping “The Tonight Show” and its host, Conan O’Brien, to 12:05 a.m.

Mr. Leno’s last show at 10 p.m. will be Feb. 11, and NBC will begin showing the Winter Olympics in prime time the next day.

One big question remains: whether Mr. O’Brien will accept what amounts to a demotion. In a news conference here, Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said he was working to keep Mr. Leno, Mr. O’Brien and the “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon together as a block, though he acknowledged that “the situation is fluid” and that “talks are still ongoing” with the hosts.

“Everybody is taking the weekend to think about all this,” Mr. Gaspin said, adding that he was personally responsible for setting the plan in motion, though he acknowledged discussing this and other options with the chief executive of NBC Universal, Jeff Zucker. “He let me pull the trigger,” Mr. Gaspin said.

The hardest talks over the weekend were probably taking place inside Mr. O’Brien’s camp, which is facing three options: stay, even though the show’s staff feels increasingly unwanted at NBC; look for an offer elsewhere, most likely the Fox network, which has let out broad hints that it would be interested in starting its own late-night franchise with Mr. O’Brien; or walk away and get into a probable legal battle over whether NBC breached Mr. O’Brien’s contract by making this change.

So far, Mr. O’Brien and his representatives have steered clear of commenting on their plans. But one issue that will be at the center of any negotiation over the host’s future is whether his contract is still valid because NBC will still call his program “The Tonight Show.”

Mr. Gaspin would not discuss contracts, but he said what was important to Mr. Leno was the opportunity to tell “jokes at 11:30 p.m.” and what was important to Mr. O’Brien was keeping the “Tonight” franchise.

In private comments from Mr. O’Brien’s side, however, keeping that title is more likely part of NBC’s legal maneuvering than a vital interest of the host, who is said to be upset with the moves.

Last week, Mr. Gaspin described Mr. O’Brien as “courteous, gracious and professional” in discussing the planned changes. He said the same of Mr. Leno, who, speaking with reporters in Vancouver, British Columbia, in an appearance there Saturday night, said he was basically on board with the shift — even though his show would be reduced to a half-hour.

The plan was outlined in the news media last week, and it quickly became fodder for caustic jokes by both men.

On Sunday, Mr. Gaspin reaffirmed that pressure from NBC’s 200-some affiliates had driven the shake-up. The 10 p.m. “Jay Leno Show” still made financial sense for NBC, he said, but the ratings from the so-called November sweeps period led many stations to begin questioning how badly their 11 p.m. local newscasts were being hurt because of diminished lead-in audiences from the show.

“The drumbeat started to get louder, and in the middle of December, they made it clear they were going to get more vocal about their displeasure,” Mr. Gaspin said. “And then they started to talk about the possibility of pre-emption.”

If enough stations had begun to pre-empt Mr. Leno, he would not have been viable as a network program. Mr. Gaspin said as many as one-third of NBC’s stations had been seriously damaged by the falloff in their news ratings.

Michael Fiorile, the head of the NBC affiliates board, who described himself as relieved by the changes, said, “there was no organized approach to what we might or might not do” about the 10 p.m. program, but there were “serious concerns.” Talk of pre-emptions, he said, would have been between individual stations and the network.

At WNBC, the flagship station in New York, dramas drew a 2.5 rating at 10 p.m. in November 2008. But “The Jay Leno Show” drew only a 1.1 rating in the same time period in November 2009. Those declines trickled down to the 11 p.m. news.

In some cities — including Indianapolis, at Mr. Fiorile’s station, WTHR — the NBC stations that had been No. 1 at 11 p.m. were suddenly No. 2 for the first time in many years.

“It was a problem at 10, it was a problem at 11, it was a problem at 11:35,” Mr. Fiorile said.

Now NBC, the fourth-place network, will try to rebuild its 10 p.m. ratings — and by extension its late-night ratings — from a position even weaker than the one it held last year. Mr. Gaspin said he expected to fill the hour with an unspecified combination of dramas, reality shows, the newsmagazine “Dateline” and repeats.

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