UPDATES NBC ON HOT SEAT: Will It Be Jay AND Conan In Late Night?

NBC-logo-RGB-pos2BREAKING NEWS! 3RD UPDATE: NBC Universal Entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin got right down to it because that’s what the TV critics and reporters wanted: his first public statement on NBC’s late night debacle orchestrated by NBCU boss Jeff Zucker. Of course, Zucker was MIA, leaving Gaspin to clean up the mess and face the press at the Television Critics Association confab this morning.

zucker dunceAfterwards, Gaspin was mobbed onstage by the media, who were surprised to hear him claim that he made the decision to pull the plug on The Jay Leno Show in primetime and then move it to 11:35 PM and in the process shakeup the network’s late night — not Jeff Zucker. (Talk about a failure of leadership at NBC Universal!) “I called Jeff and said, but this was not news to him, ’It’s time we make the call.’ He said, I don’t remember the exact words, but he understood and he didn’t disagree. And don’t get me wrong, he challenged me every step of the way. All the things you are throwing at me, he threw out every possibility (including having Leno on only a few nights a week instead of five). And in the end, after the answers I was able to give and the conversations we had,  we realized this was a best choice and perhaps our only choice.”

jeff gaspinNBC programming chief Angela Bronstad gamely held court at Gaspin’s side with a few stragglers who were actually interested in NBC’s primetime scripted shows. (Imagine that, since the audiences aren’t!). But it was Gaspin on the hot seat for NBC to explain to the gaggle of critics and reporters (including Diane Haithman who is covering the TCA conference for Deadline Hollywood), what happened internally between NBC and its angry affiliates and its upset TV hosts:

Jeff Gaspin led off the session with this statement: “Anyway, let me just get right to it. Let’s talk about The Jay Leno Show. I can confirm what many of you have been reporting: starting February The Jay Leno Show will no longer air at 10 PM. While it was performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliates’ needs and we realized we had to make a change.

“My goal right now is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of our late night lineup. I’ve spoken to all of them and proposed that The Jay Leno Show move to 11:35 PM, The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien move to 12:05 AM and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon would then start at 1:05 AM. As much as I would like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that’s not true. The talks are still ongoing.”

He told the media that, while he doesn’t know the exact date this late night quagmire will get squared away, he’s confident it will be before NBC starts airing the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 12th. Gaspin refused to discuss the specifics of the ongoing contract negotiations. (“We all have the weekend to think about it, and we’ll get back into conversations starting tomorrow.”)

NBC LenoWithin hours of Gaspin’s TCA news conference, NBC released this statement from Michael Fiorile, Chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board, supporting the network’s primetime and late night moves: “This is a great move for the affiliates, the network and, most importantly, the viewers. Speaking on behalf of the board, I thank the network for keeping the lines of communication so open, and for being so responsive to the needs of the affiliates. We admire their willingness to innovate, and their willingness to change course when it didn’t work for us. We were delighted to collaborate on the launch of the 10:00 PM show, and we look forward to continuing to work with Jeff Zucker and  the entire network leadership team as we set a new direction, build on our long history together, and contribute to the impressive legacy of NBC.”

But, earlier, Gaspin shed the first light of what had transpired between NBC and its angry affiliates. He said they forced his hand, causing him to act before the affiliates yanked The Jay Leno Show themselves because its lead-in was hurting the stations’ local newscast (which is their cash cow). “I would have liked nothing more than to give it a 52-week try,” Gaspin said. First, the affiliates gave NBC until November. “Then they said, ‘You know, this is not getting much better for us.’” (Gaspin later estimated about a third of the affiliates were really hurt by it. “In some cases, they just lost more of a [ratings] percentage than they thought they would. So we said, ‘Let’s look at December.’” But, Gaspin noted, when smaller affiliates started getting their ratings books in November, ”the drumbeat started getting louder and louder. Towards the middle of December, they made it very clear they were going to start to be more vocal about their displeasure. Then they started talking about preemption. It was then that I realized that this was not going to go well if we kept things in place. And since they are our partners, even though it was doing OK for us, and it truly was, I just made a tough call.”

conan500Gaspin said network advertising revenue was never an issue in the decision to yank Leno in primetime. ”This was not an issue for the network, it was an issue for our affiliates.” Later, he went on to explain, ”it becomes more of a public relations issue than a contractual issue. You don’t want to have your partners, your affiliates, constantly saying, ‘This is killing me.’ It was going to damage Jay, and it was going to damage NBC. So regardless of what the legal situation was, this was going to continue to be a PR nightmare. Obviously, the ones that were hurt the most were the loudest.”

Aw, c’mon, NBC couldn’t have thought Leno at 10 PM was working out. ”It was working at acceptable levels financially, so we were actually making money at 10 o’clock. To that extent it was working.” Gaspin later admitted that “I think that the initial decision to put Jay at 10 is because they wanted to keep Jay at the network.  The fact that there was a financial story and a financial benefit that could go along with that I think became the story. But it was not the reason we made the initial move. We made the initial move to keep Jay.”

jimmy_fallonHe agreed with the theory that, if NBC had a stronger primetime, Jay’s show wouldn’t have struggled quite so hard. ”Probably. If we had a stronger 8 PM-10 PM. When Biggest Loser was his lead-in, he did well. We came in second every Tuesday.” Looking back, Gaspin acknowledged, “We wanted an alternative at 10. We still think it’s a tough time period.  And while I would have liked to see it do a little better than it was doing, over time I think we would have seen it grow for the network. It was not yet a wrong decision.” Gaspin acknowledged, “I would have preferred to wait until September. I would have preferred to see the summer ratings.” But later, he told media gathered around him, ”I had to signal to the affiliates that we were willing to make a change.”

Gaspin analyzed the negative reaction to Jay’s show. “I don’t think that people didn’t watch Jay Leno at 10 o’clock because of the quality of the show. I think people just have a lot of choices at 10. There were  just so many choices that people thought were better, and I heard that anecdotally, over and over again.”

carson daly_lBefore making his proposal to the late night hosts and their people, Gaspin said, “we did a lot of [network and affiliate audience] research, both qualitative and quantitative, and both sets of research indicated that this had a really good shot at working, and the affiliates signed on with us. They were our partners, and they are just as disappointed as we are that this isn’t working.  They just have a financial situation that forces their hand more than we do.”

How did the hosts react when Gaspin went to him with his late night proposal? “Both Jay and Conan and Jimmy were incredibly gracious and professional, and they all said they understood the difficult situation I was in. Beyond that, it was a private conversation. When this settles, you are more than welcome to go and ask them what their feelings were,” Gaspin challenged the critics and reporters.

But Gaspin was asked what is O’Brien’s incentive for agreeing to these changes? ”I think Conan’s motivation in this will be more clear as time goes on. But what is important to me is that I gave Conan something that was very important to him, which was The Tonight Show. And so when I asked him to move to 12:05 AM, I made it very clear that The Tonight Show was moving with him.”

And Leno? ”What was important to Jay was telling jokes at 11:35 PM. I obviously couldn’t satisfy either completely, but that’s why I came up with this compromise.”

But how does NBC fight the perecption that Jay and Conan are now damaged goods? ”I think time, just time. I think when they tell jokes about this, it sort of winks to the audience that they are not doing this in the dark. But I think time is the best answer to your question.”

But it’s unclear how either host, and especially Conan, can trust NBC not to move their time slots again, or worse, fire them. Gaspin answered by noting that what happened was “such a unique set of circumstances –  the move to 10 oclock, the move back. I think we are in a safer zone having all of our late night folks actually in late night. So I don’t expect another upheaval like we had in the past year.”

And what about Carson Daly? Is he odd man out? Assured Gaspin: ”Carson Daly is going to be part of our schedule, regardless of what happens.” (Sure, as if talent can believe anything NBC tells them these days!)

Gaspin admitted the network is starting from Ground Zero all over again after the Leno debacle. “For us right now, going back to basics is probably the smartest play. We lost about 30% of our rating at 10, about nine-tenths of a ratings point.  So here’s nine-tenths of a ratings point that I’m handing over to CBS and ABC.”  But the NBC exec also noted that the other networks also have lost ratings points at 10. “Tell me there is not a problem in broadcast TV at 10 p.m. That’s rhetorical…” As for when he predicts celler-dwelling NBC will recover from this debacle, he said, “I almost don’t care how quickly it happens as long as it happens. I want to see improvement in our schedule and progress with our ratings, As long as I see an hour going up instead of sideways or down, I’ll be happy.”

Added the exec: “I don’t know if it’s wrong to take chances.  I think you have to take chances, but maybe we were a little too early on this one… I still think you have to play a little bit with your schedule. And I think you are going to see us, maybe not as much in the next three months because I don’t have as much to work with, but I think by the fall you will see us try some interesting stuff with the schedule.”

Here’s what will reassure Hollywood’s TV community: Gaspin said, with the loss of Leno at 10, “My guess is this will net at least two more hours of scripted somewhere on the schedule, and another reality hour.”

But the single funniest “inside Hollywood” joke made by Gaspin came during this exchange with journalists asking about Ari Emanuel, who with partner Rick Rosen is one of Conan’s WME agents, as well as the inspiration for Jeremy Piven’s infamously excitable (and foul-mouthed) Ari Gold on Entourage:

Q. You said that both of the comics were cordial in the room. How was Ari?
JG: You know, based on reputation, not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I have talked to Ari. I have talked to Rick Rosen on a fairly consistent basis.

Q: How much more is it going to cost to shift everything?
JG: It’s going to cost more.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.