Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's true: Leno's prime-time foray's over

NBC confirms shuffle of the talk shows with move back to later time slot

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PASADENA -- Well, it's official -- Jay is walking ... right out of prime time and back into the 10:35 p.m. timeslot he inhabited for 17 years as host of The Tonight Show.

NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin opened a press conference here Sunday morning with a confirmation that Leno's foray into the 9 p.m. timeslot will come to an end because The Jay Leno Show "did not meet (NBC's) affiliates' needs."

But Jay Leno won't be reclaiming the iconic title of the NBC late-night franchise; that will still belong to Conan O'Brien, provided he opts to accept the network's decision to shift his show to 11:05 p.m. following a relocated, reduced and refocused new version of Leno's failed prime-time program.

This all became fact rather than rumour on Sunday morning when NBC's executives met with the press during the second full day of the U.S. networks' winter press tour. The TV industry had been abuzz with speculation since late last week, when online reports suggested that the Peacock network was, indeed, going to abandon its Jay-in-prime-time experiment after just three months, despite pronouncements last summer that Leno would be given a full year to find his footing in the earlier slot.

"I would have liked nothing more than to give this a 52-week try," said Gaspin. "But starting in November, the affiliates started calling and saying, 'Wow, the impact on our local news has been more than we expected.' ... And at the end of November, they started saying, 'It's not really getting any better.' In some cases, they had the No. 1 newscast, and now it was No. 3; in other cases, they had lost a larger percentage than they thought they would. We were in constant dialogue with the affiliates, talking about the 52-week concept and waiting to see how this would do. ... And toward the middle of December, they made it very clear that they were going to start to get more vocal about their displeasure, and were even starting to talk about the possibility of pre-emption. And it was then that I realized that this was just not going to go well."

As a result, starting Feb. 12, a half-hour version of The Jay Leno Show will air at 10:35 p.m.; O'Brien's version of The Tonight Show will air at 11:05 p.m., and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will shift to the wee-hours 12:05 a.m. timeslot. That's the plan, but Gaspin admitted Sunday that the launch of the new-look late-night lineup depends on having all three hosts agree to the changes -- which has not yet happened.

"I'm not going to talk about it much ... because I've got a fluid situation," he said. "Everybody has the weekend to think about it; let's see what happens when we get back at it tomorrow."

Gaspin said despite its disappointing ratings performance, the lower production costs of The Jay Leno Show meant it was actually making money for the network, but its negative impact on affiliates' balance sheets simply could not be ignored.

The return to more traditional TV programming at 9 p.m. won't necessarily mean a big influx of new scripted dramas on NBC. Gaspin said the prime-time remix will probably bring two more hours of scripted fare into the lineup, with the remaining three reclaimed hours being filled by reality shows, newsmagazines and reruns.

Earlier in the weekend, CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler told the press-tour throng that NBC's notion that the entire prime-time business model needs a major overhaul was a bit of a stretch.

"It just allowed us to get a bigger piece of the ad-revenue pie at (nine) o'clock," she said of NBC's Leno lapse. "And again, what I have the most trouble with is for their company, in their decision to do what they did, to sort of turn that and say that this is a reflection on the whole network business, I think, is misguided.

"Our business is thriving right now. We are enjoying success with new hit shows, as is ABC, as is Fox. So I think, at the end of the day, it was an experiment that obviously did not work."

Tassler also said that the move by the Peacock to dump scripted programming at 9 p.m. had left Hollywood's TV-production community feeling "a little bruised," but a series of new-show announcements during Sunday's session suggest that nobody's feelings had been hurt badly enough to keep them from doing business with NBC.

NBC primetime entertainment president Angela Bromstad announced an extensive development slate of scripted dramas, including a U.S. version of the BBC/Helen Mirren hit Prime Suspect, a 21st-century revival of The Rockford Files produced by David Shore (House) and Steve Carell (The Office), a J.J.-Abrams-produced spy series called Undercovers, an action-procedural drama called Chase from Jerry Bruckheimer, a new legal drama, Kindreds, from David E. Kelley and a new, L.A.-based spinoff of Law & Order.

"The only way we can (reclaim NBC's place as a prime-time leader) is to return to programming great, quality shows," she said.

Gaspin said it may take time for NBC to repair its reputation as a home for quality scripted programming, but was quick to add that there are few, if any, regrets about the Leno experiment.

"I don't think it's wrong to take chances," he said. "I think you have to take chances; sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. We might have been too early on this one. Maybe there's a little more life left for us to mine (with scripted programs at 9 p.m.). I hope so, because I'm going back to basics."

For more TV-press-tour fun, check out my blog, CouchBoy Chronicles, at www.winnipegfreepress.com.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2010 D3

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