Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien In A Late Night Mess
Similar to the time in 1993 when David Letterman walked away from the Peacock after Jay Leno scored "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien may be close to doing the exact same thing.
Insiders were confirming late Thursday that Leno had been offered -- and had accepted -- a return to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, where the host dominated the late night wars for nearly 15 years.
If that's the case -- and it was looking likely -- then the attention now turns to Conan O'Brien, who has a difficult decision in front of him.
O'Brien's handlers are likely mulling all of their options before them -- and pitching their client to both Fox, which currently doesn't have a late night franchise on the weeknights, and ABC, which would have to move "Nightline" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live" out of the way.
O'Brien's decision will dictate how Leno's show is presented on NBC. If O'Brien ultimately decides to stay, "The Jay Leno Show" will air at 11:35 p.m. (and focus mostly on its monologue), followed by "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" at 12:05 a.m. and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" at 1:05 a.m.
But if O'Brien bolts the Peacock, then Leno will once again host a one-hour "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" each night. Leno told Broadcasting and Cable last fall that he wouldn't say no if NBC gave him back the slot -- and indeed, it appears he has agreed to the new arrangement, even if it means hosting just a half-hour show each night.
For O'Brien, the red-headed host's options may be limited. "Nightline" is performing well for ABC, and the network appears to have backed off its once-likely plans to dump the late night newsmag.
That would leave NBC, if O'Brien's willing to take his lumps. On the plus side, he would still host the storied "Tonight Show" franchise, and he'd still air a half hour earlier than he did on "Late Night" -- and would likely be the midnight victor vs. "Jimmy Kimmel."
But it would also require moving past an awkward late night redesign. The host could also consider late-night first-run syndication or cable.
Meanwhile, in moving Leno back to late night, NBC will suddenly have five hours worth of primetime air to fill. And given that NBC has already scheduled "Parenthood," handed back "Southland" and reduced "Day One" to a limited run series, its hour-long cupboard is pretty bare this midseason.
Net will likely move some of its dramas, like "Law and Order: SVU," back to 10 p.m. Other holes might be filled by reality shows, repeats and "Dateline NBC."
For next season, NBC already has aggressive plans to produce up to 18 pilots this development season. But that new crop of series won't be ready until fall.
NBC likely wasn't ready to make such drastic changes this soon, especially since the net has long said it would give "The Jay Leno Show" at least a year in its 10 p.m. slot before making any changes.
But that wasn't good enough for affiliates, which have gotten increasingly vocal with their anger over "Leno's" and NBC's primetime performance. The show's 10 p.m. lead-in ratings have crippled the Peacock's owned and affiliated stations' late newscast ratings, and a revolt may have been brewing. Network is set to meet with affils later this month at NATPE.
As a result, under pressure NBC has quickly started hammering out this new late night scenario -- which nonetheless comes with several challenges (including what's believed to be a massive, eight-figure payout for O'Brien) .
The idea of Leno back at 11:35 gained steam among NBC bosses, who were hashing out the fate of the primetime "Jay Leno Show," in recent weeks. Peacock finally decided to pull the trigger just in the past few days.
NBC isn't confirming any of this just yet, but it won't be able to duck the issue for long.
The network itself was only confirming that "The Jay Leno Show" hadn't been canceled, and that it hoped to keep O'Brien in the fold.
We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC," the network said in a statement. "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."
The net's earlier statement about Leno, meanwhile, was just as carefully worded: "Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay's show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates. Both Jay and the show are committed to working closely with them to find ways to improve the performance."
NBC appears more ready to cut O'Brien loose than it was last year, when some industry wags first suggested that NBC halt its "Tonight Show" succession plan and keep the top-rated Leno in place.
At the time, Peacock execs ultimately decided that they'd already gone too far down the road in adhering to the plan, first formulated more than five years ago, and grooming O'Brien as Leno's successor.
If it comes down to Leno vs. O'Brien, now that NBC has seen how both perform at 11:30, the network was apparently ready to put its support behind Leno.
Of course, NBC may also decide that it doesn't want to hand-deliver a lucrative late night franchise to Fox and News Corp. -- and could instead still aim toward another scenario that could somehow keep both Leno and O'Brien in the Peacock stable.
Other options that have been mentioned in the past include striking a deal with affils to move their local newscasts down to 10 p.m.; that would allow for "The Jay Leno Show" at 10:35 and "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" at 11:35.
If Leno were to stay in prime, NBC might have considered decreasing "Jay Leno" to just three nights a week in prime, or struck a deal with Leno to do an abbreviated version of his show at 8 p.m. (Leno, however, has said he has no interest in doing a show that early).
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