BREAKING NEWS! 5TH UPDATE AT 7:45 PM & 4TH UPDATE 4:20 PM: On tonight’s monologue, Jay Leno sounds upset, even going so far to say he has “trust” issues with NBC right now. Which indicates that Leno and his reps are fighting NBC’s attempts to cancel The Jay Leno Show at 10 PM primetime Monday through Friday. That would violate his 5-year contract in which the network gave his show a 2-year iron-clad commitment. But NBC doesn’t want to absorb the penalty — “it’s just too big” — so their solution is to find a place for Jay in late night. But, wait — wouldn’t Leno like NBC’s idea to return him to the 11:35 PM time slot he called home from 1992-2009? Not so much if it’s an abbreviated half-hour that’s just a lead-in to Conan. That’s right, TMZ is wrong: I’m telling you that Leno is not being offered The Tonight Show.
The fact is O’Brien doesn’t want to give up The Tonight Show, and NBC won’t dare make him because that incurs its own costly penalty. On the other hand NBC also recognizes that Jay’s monologues are a big draw and thinks having that first half-hour back will help trounce ABC’s Nightline which has gained strength ever since O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. NBC may act like this sked change is a slam dunk, but I’m told “Conan hasn’t agreed to anything yet, especially not to push back to 12:05 AM.” NBC has the contractual right to start The Tonight Show as late as 12:05 AM, which it sometimes does for sports or news. So if NBC gives Jay Leno back the 11:35 PM slot, and calls it The Jay Leno Show, and keeps Conan on Tonight, the network incurs no penalties.
Yet NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker already deemed O’Brien was the future of the network’s late night and Leno was the past. In order not to lose Conan to a competing network, he bumped Leno. Then, in order not to lose Jay to a competing network, he pushed him into primetime. Now Leno gets moved back into late night with a lesser gig, and O’Brien humilated with a later start time. That’s not fair to either man. Besides, Jay had 18 months to transform his Tonight Show from a critical and ratings disaster into #1 in late night. Conan has only had 7 months. So NBC’s waffling statements today start to make sense as both hosts and their reps fight a behind-the-scenes turf war with the network. Leno’s monologue said:
Happy birthday to Katie Couric, it’s her birthday today. She left NBC for another network. I have to give her call to see how that is working out. As you may have heard, there is a rumor floating around that we were cancelled. I heard it coming in this morning on the radio. So far no one has said anything to me. But, Kev, if we did get cancelled, it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that Fox is beautiful this time of year.
I don’t think there is any truth to the rumors. See, it’s always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you’re in first place. So we are fine. We are OK…
[Later, Leno inserted this comment after a joke.] You know what happened? NBC found four guns in my locker. I was suspended. [Kevin says, “I’m glad they didn’t find them in my locker.”] We will keep following this story….
[Later, Leno returns to NBC yet again.] The Justice Department announced they will conduct an anti-trust review of Comcast’s proposed deal to merge with NBC. An anti-trust review. Which is the relationship i have with NBC. Anti-trust. Hey Kev, what does NBC stand for? Never believe your contract.”
3RD UPDATE 4:40 PM: NBC just issued this statement regarding all the Conan speculation today:
“We have the best comedy team in the business. We remain committed to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC. 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.”
2ND UPDATE 4:15PM: It’s been a day filled with Internet rumors, NBC denials and non-denials, and the network talking out of both sides of its mouth. This has created an uproar around the futures of both The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien while the network talks to both hosts and their reps about how to fix the mess that NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker set in motion. But, to quote the Pottery Barn rule, “You break it, you buy it.”
Here’s what I’ve learned: Last night, NBC Universal Television Entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin came to The Jay Leno Show and met for two hours with Jay and his executive producer Debbie Vickers. When the show’s staff arrived this morning, they were shocked to see in the conference room that the bigwigs had taken down all the booking cards scheduling guests after the February 12-28 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Panic ensued. The cards went back up. Then a staff meeting was held today assuring everyone that the show is not cancelled. But staff were told there’s a good likelihood the show could move to just Fridays or worse. Now no one on the show, or in Hollywood for that matter, believes NBC isn’t cancelling The Jay Leno Show in primetime at 10 PM. Especially after NBC, in response to Internet rumors, finally released a statement today that it’s looking for ways to “improve the performance” of the show after “affiliate issues”. (See below). Also, I know that the TV community is being told to bring NBC as much primetime drama development as possible because Leno’s 10 PM time period is returning to scripted programming. And NBC already has put several high level, high profile dramas in development. (See below)
Between the Television Critics Association meeting which starts on Saturday for the next two weeks, and an NBC affiliates’ board meeting on January 21st, NBC can’t let Leno stay in limbo. Especially not when he’s repped by the most powerful TV business lawyer in Hollywood, Ken Ziffren. But today Conan also was hung out to dry when NBC decided not to comment — and, thus, refused to deny — a TMZ report that Leno was returning to his old job as host of The Tonight Show. But insiders assure me that Conan O’Brien will not be pulled as Tonight Show host if and when Leno is moved back into late night. And not just because NBC triggers a huge $50M financial penalty to O’Brien if it doesn’t continue with him. After all, that’s chicken feed if the network decides that’s the only way to save its once invincible late night lineup. Then again, Conan, too, has a powerful rep — WME, the big Hollywood agency that does megabusiness with NBC.
Exactly in what time slot and with what show Leno come comes back to late night is still under discussion. But at this point, thanks to NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker’s terrible decisions, both Jay and Conan could well be damaged goods. It’s questionable whether Leno can bring back his late night audience after failing so humiliatingly in primetime. (Ugh, he looked so uncomfortable in that chair and even his monologue was dumbed down for primetime.) Or whether O’Brien has the right stuff to continue. (He regularly trails David Letterman in both viewership and advertiser-coveted demos). And third wheel Jimmy Fallon has been losing to Craig Ferguson.
11:45 AM UPDATE & 10 AM PREVIOUS: I’ve learned that NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker flew out to Los Angeles last night to take his about-to-be Comcast bosses Brian Roberts and Steve Burke today on a “meet-and-greet” tour of NBC Universal’s West Coast. “He’s doing breakfasts and lunches with teams out there,” a source tells me. “He arrived last night for a day of meetings.” He will fly back and then attend the all-important affiliates’ board meeting scheduled for January 21st (after, NBC sources say, it was postponed from December). But against this backdrop, the Internet is working overtime spreading reports that The Jay Leno Show is about to be drastically changed or yanked completely. That’s because the affiliates are upset about Leno as the lead-in to their local newscasts, most of whose ratings have suffering because of Jay’s late night numbers in 10 PM primetime. Those news shows have been cash cows for the O&Os and affiliates whose general managers are now spitting mad these profit centers are threatened. In fact, NBC just now took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the FTV Live report saying Leno’s show will be cancelled without at first issuing a straight denial, which came later from the network. Here’s the first NBC statement:
“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.”
From the first day it was conceived through the first day it aired (photo right by Jim Stevenson) and for months afterwards, there’s been speculation about what might happen to The Jay Leno Show given the the critics’ drubbing and the affiliates’ doubting. Among the changes chattered about, 1) It would no longer be 5 days a week in primetime and reduce to Mon-Wed-Fri or even less frequent, 2) It would become a 1/2 hour primetime show paired with another comedy, 3) It would move to 11 PM and affiliates would move news to 10 PM, and, of course 4) It’s toast.
Hollywood is betting that the decision will be reached either to reduce the number of Leno’s shows per week or, even more drastically, take the show off primetime entirely. The timing for change is expected after NBC’s Vancouver Winter Olympics uber-coverage from February 12-28. Already, the network has shown it wants to return to hour-long drama for the 10 PM slot by ordering development of several high-profile, high-priced shows. These include one from JJ Abrams and another from Jerry Bruckheimer as well as a rebooted Prime Suspect and Rockford Files, plus a Warner Bros TV project, and another high-level show yet to be determined. I could say all sorts of snarky things here about Zucker for presiding over this disaster. But I’d just be repeating myself.