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Once Again, NBC to Reshuffle Nightime Lineup

January 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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NBC plans to reshuffle its late night programming by pushing Jay Leno's show back to 11:30 p.m. Jeffrey Brown explores how the move will affect viewers and networks.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: Who will have the last laugh? We check in on the changing chairs in late-night TV.

JAY LENO, host, “The Jay Leno Show”: I don’t think there’s any truth to the rumor. See, it’s always been my experience NBC only cancels you when you’re in first place. So we’re fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Actually, Jay Leno’s bosses at NBC decided he’s not OK, at least not at 10:00 p.m., where they had moved his show last September in a grand experiment that seems to have failed.

On Sunday, NBC confirmed reports that Leno will move back to his old time slot at 11:30, where he had been the ratings king for some 15 years. Under their proposed change, Conan O’Brien, who took over the old “Tonight Show,” but lost about half Leno’s audience, would keep the name, but move his starting time to 12:05 a.m.

And Jimmy Fallon and his late-night show would also be pushed a half-hour later to a 1:05 a.m. start. In the 10:00 p.m. slot, “The Jay Leno Show” has attracted in 5.8 million viewers, a good number for late-night, not so good for prime time, which local affiliates rely on as the lead-in to their 11:00 newscasts.

The next big question for NBC is whether Conan O’Brien will accept the move. Friday night, before the official announcement, he was taking some humorous jabs at his employer.

CONAN O’BRIEN, host, “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien”: I’m sure you have all heard the rumors, ladies and gentlemen. NBC has finally come up with an exciting new idea. They want me to follow Jay Leno.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Jay Leno show will end its 10:00 p.m. run on February 11, as NBC begins its coverage of the Winter Olympics. Friday, Leno was already joking about his next move.

JAY LENO: You know, if they did cancel us, it would be an easy move for me, because I still haven’t unpacked from the last show they canceled us from. Everything is still back there, so it’s fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: More on all this now from Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, where he’s founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, and Kim Masters, who covers the entertainment business as host of KCRW’s “The Business” on public radio in Los Angeles.

So, Kim Masters, it was the affiliates and their 11:00 p.m. newscasts. Explain how that part of the TV business works.

KIM MASTERS: Well, the affiliates rely on their local newscasts for advertising revenue. It’s a very important part of their picture. And they found that they were losing their audience. In some cases, it was quite precipitous, double-digit drops, dropping — newscasts dropping from number one to number two or number three.

And they basically told NBC that if NBC didn’t pull Jay Leno at 10:00, they were going to start preempting the show, and there was going to be something of a revolt. So, that is what NBC maintains really forced its hand. NBC maintains, from its standpoint, it would have stuck with Jay Leno for a year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s — Kim, just to stay with you, that’s even though Jay Leno was sort of pulling in the numbers that — that everyone thought he might, I guess, right?

KIM MASTERS: Well, that’s NBC’s story. I mean, there’s sort of a little bit of a doublespeak about what NBC’s motive here was.

NBC partly just wanted to keep Jay Leno on the network and not allow him to go off and set up a rival show probably on ABC or FOX. But they — they cast this as an attempt to save money. And they do have a very legitimate problem, as all the broadcast networks do, programming at 10:00 p.m. It’s very expensive to do scripted programming. And those programs, when they don’t work, are really expensive. And, when they do work, they’re not as successful as they were in the days of “E.R.,” when television audiences were less fragmented than they are now.

So, there’s a little bit of a double understanding. NBC maintained, if they could have kept Leno on maybe in the summer, when other competitors are doing reruns, when there’s less competition, maybe it would have worked. But their affiliates simply wouldn’t wait long enough to find out. And that at least is the story that NBC is telling us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Robert Thompson, so, now we have this interesting situation where NBC is sort of substituting one experiment for another, if you look at what’s going to — what might happen in late-night television.

ROBERT THOMPSON, professor, Syracuse University: Yes.

I mean, they seem to have maximized their disadvantages here across the board.

And they seem to perhaps be continuing to do so, because, first, they did this very dangerous experiment of putting Leno on at 10:00. That didn’t work. But then the idea is, OK, well, let’s try to make that go away and put him back on 11:30, where he was at number one.

However, it sounds like they’re going to make that an experiment as well, because it’s going to be Leno in a half-hour time slot, which is going to be totally different in rhythm, in structure, than Leno is used to doing. And it might take him a long time to get going on that.

So, I think there’s a sense in which they’re not going back to the way things were. They’re going to yet another experiment, which could be just as dangerous. And part of it is simply the math. They have got a surplus of programming on late night. They have got three stars and they have got two hour-long time slots, as opposed to their other major problem, which is that they have no programming to replace 10:00 Monday through Friday with, which I suspect they are now scrambling to find something in there that’s going to do better than Leno and finally make those affiliates happy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kim Masters, speak of — now let’s talk about that 10:00 slot. An NBC official was quoted as saying they were going back to basics. You said this is a huge problem for all the networks, sort of figuring out the business model to make that work.

What happens now, both at NBC and at other places?

KIM MASTERS: Well, the other networks were hoping to take more advantage, I think of, of the absence of a competition on NBC than they did at 10:00. And that’s one of the points that Jeff Gaspin, the head of NBC, has been making with the press, is that he ceded that hour to ABC and CBS. FOX doesn’t have programming at that hour. And they still didn’t really do better.

They, in fact, went slightly backward in their ratings. So, they’re all going to try and figure out how to make this work. The big problem at that hour is — tends to be DVRs at this point, increasingly. If you’re not seeing something at 10:00 that you particularly want to watch, you’re going to watch what you have saved up on your DVR.

I think what NBC will do is, you will see things like “Law & Order: SVU,” which was never really a great fit at 9:00 anyway, as more of a gritty crime drama, moving into that 10:00 hour. You will see some “Dateline.” And they are reaching out for a bunch of very traditional scripted programming from very established producers, like Jerry Bruckheimer, or like Dick Wolf with the “Law & Order”s, talking about a “Law & Order: L.A.” They’re talking about a “Rockford Files” remake.

So, they’re going, as they say, back to basics. And it’s almost ironic. They were telling us a short time ago that they were going to reinvent television. And all of that has been discarded, and it’s back to basics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bob Thompson, just to broaden even further, so, there’s the DVR, one new factor here. There’s the competition from the Internet, which we talk about a lot. But a lot of this also has to do with competition from cable, I guess, right, in terms of what the networks are facing.

ROBERT THOMPSON: That’s right.

I think this had a lot less to do with the new digital revolution and the Internet and all the rest of it. I think this got down to good old-fashioned fragmentation of the audience, which has been happening since cable started kicking in, in the 1980s.

When you have got so many other choices of places to watch, the networks are having a hard time getting audiences big enough to justify the kind of expenditures for these sorts of scripted shows. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if NBC and perhaps even the second-place network at some time in the foreseeable future didn’t cede the entire 10:00 hour back to the affiliates.

As a matter of fact, when there were discussions about what to do with this Leno thing, one of the suggestions the affiliates made was simply give the hour back to us. FOX, of course, doesn’t play anything on prime time from 10:00 to 11:00. And they let their affiliates play an early version of the news. My guess is that something like that could probably happen not so much for the first-place network, which is generally doing fine with three hours of prime time a night. If you’re in third place, that’s not so much the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Kim Masters, just in our last minute, and speaking of FOX, I mean, a lot of this still depends on Conan O’Brien, I guess, who has an interesting contract that NBC would have to deal with, and the potential of perhaps moving. We have heard even some talks about, I guess, he’s in talks with some of his representatives with FOX. What do you know about that?

KIM MASTERS: It’s very unclear what’s going to happen with Conan and what can happen with Conan contractually. And NBC is certainly not telling us.

I don’t really think — I disagree with Bob a little. I think Leno doing an 11:30-something will be fine. It’s what he does, a monologue and a guest, and out.

And then the question is, you know, what is “The Tonight Show” if it’s on at 12:05? Will Conan have to stay? Will FOX really be interested? They’re doing pretty well right now. They don’t necessarily want to write a big check to Conan. He’s already been out at 11:35, and it hasn’t gone that well. So, all of these questions are still to be dealt with.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Kim Masters and Robert Thompson, thank you both very much.

KIM MASTERS: Thank you.

ROBERT THOMPSON: Thank you.