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Affiliates prompt NBC to cancel Leno’s show

Low ratings at 10 p.m. were hurting local late news programs

PASADENA, Calif. – NBC said Sunday it decided to pull the plug on the Jay Leno experiment when some affiliate stations considered dropping the nightly prime-time show, and the network is waiting to hear if Leno and “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien accept its new late-night TV plans.

“The Jay Leno Show,” which airs at 10 p.m. PST, will end with the Feb. 12 beginning of the Winter Olympics, said NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin. Leno would return to his former 11:35 p.m. slot after the Olympics ended under the network’s new plan, which also calls for O’Brien to retain his job with “Tonight” but at the later hour of 12:05 a.m. PST.

Jimmy Fallon and his “Late Night” would be pushed back a half-hour later as well, to 1:05 a.m. PST.

“My goal is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as our late-night lineup,” Gaspin said, adding later that they “have the weekend to think about it” and discussions with them will resume today.

NBC had moved Leno to prime-time last year in order to keep him from leaving the company and keep a promise it had made to give O’Brien the “Tonight” show. The change was one of the most dramatic in prime-time television in a generation. It was also a roll of the dice at a time NBC was suffering in prime-time. It didn’t even last six months.

Gaspin said the new proposal gives Leno what’s important to him – telling jokes at a later hour – and O’Brien his top priority, retaining “Tonight.”

“I hope and expect that before the Olympics begin, we’ll have everything set. I can’t imagine we won’t have everything in place before then,” Gaspin told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.

Gaspin said that despite lower ratings for NBC at 10 p.m. compared to last year, the network was making money off the show.

But affiliates were upset that it was leading fewer viewers into their late news programs, costing them significant advertising revenue. Some affiliates told NBC in December they would go public soon about their complaints if a change wasn’t made, or even take Leno’s show off the air.

Gaspin said about one-third of the affiliates were really hurt by the Leno show, although he wasn’t clear on how many said they might pre-empt his show.

“I asked them (the affiliates) how many are they talking about, because I could have lived with one or two. But I got the sense that it was more than one or two,” he said.

Michael Fiorile, chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board, said it was a great move for NBC stations, the networks and viewers.

“We admire their willingness to innovate, and their willingness to change course when it didn’t work for us,” Fiorile said.

O’Brien reportedly has a contract that guarantees him a multimillion-dollar payment if “Tonight” is moved later than 12:05 a.m. PST.

But Gaspin, asked if a contractual penalty weighed into the decision to bump O’Brien’s show a half-hour rather than a full hour, replied, “No, not at all.”

The decision to shift Leno will leave a gaping hole in NBC’s prime-time schedule, at a time the network is already struggling. A mix of reality programming, “Dateline NBC” and at least two hours of scripted shows will be added to fill in the five hours taken up by Leno’s prime-time show each week.

Tags: television