I think it’s fair to say that there wasn’t a single member of the Television Critics Associate who wasn’t chomping at the bit to see how this session was going to go down. With all of the controversy breaking about the reported cancellation of “The Jay Leno Show” and rumors of its host moving to a half-hour slot at 11:35 PM, thereby moving the other members of the late-night line-up – “The Tonight Show starring Conan O’Brien” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” back by an hour, everybody wanted to know how NBC was going to handle damage control.
“I see we have a full house,” said NBC Universal TV chairman Jeff Gaspin, as he walked onto the stage and stood before a ballroom filled with TV critics, many of whom were poised to pounce. “I heard there were some scalpers outside.”
The levity quickly went by the wayside, however, as Gaspin went into the recitation of what one can only presume was a well-tweaked statement, confirming that, starting February 12th, “The Jay Leno Show” will no longer air at 10 PM. He admitted that, although the series performed at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet the needs of the network’s affiliates, hence the change in programming strategy. He also stated that NBC’s goal was to keep all three of its hosts as part of the late-night landscape – “The Jay Leno Show” at 11:35 PM, “The Tonight Show starring Conan O’Brien” at 12:05 AM, and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05 AM – while acknowledging that this plan was in no way a done deal and that talks are still ongoing.
“It’s a fluid situation,” said Gaspin. “Everybody has the weekend to think about it, and we’ll see what happens when we start the new week tomorrow.”
While he would not confirm the hosts’ specific reactions to the new plan, Gaspin said that all three gentlemen were “incredibly gracious and professional” and that they acknowledged that they knew it was a difficult situation. As for anything else that went down during the discussions, he merely described it as a “private conversation,” adding, “When it’s all settled, you can go and ask them what their feelings were.”
Gaspin expects that the new late-night line-up will be in place by the time NBC’s coverage of the Olympics begins in February.
Unsurprisingly, the critics’ claws were soon out, with one wanting to know exactly what happened with the network’s assurances during the summer TCA tour that the success or failure of “The Jay Leno Show” would not be determined fully until the series had run for a full 52-week cycle. Gaspin maintained that the 52-week plan still would’ve been his preference but again cited the affiliates’ concerns as being the driving force behind the comparatively-quick removal of the series from its prime-time berth.
“Starting in November, the affiliates started calling, saying that local news was being affected more than expected,” said Gaspin. By the end of the month, the stations which utilized people meters for their ratings continued their complaints, now citing statistics where, in some cases, #1 local news broadcasts had dropped to #3. Gaspin continued his constant dialogue with the affiliates, requesting that they wait and see how the show would do against repeats…and, indeed, “The Jay Leno Show” did do better, but only by about a tenth of a rating point, still coming in second to either CBS or ABC on a regular basis. When the smaller affiliates without people meters got their November book numbers, “the drum beat started getting louder,” Gaspin said, and as it became progressively more clear that they were only going to be getting more vocal about their displeasure, throwing around comments about possible preemption, “we realized things were not going to go well if it was kept in place.”
Gaspin continued to clarify, however, that despite the feelings of the affiliates, NBC did not feel that “The Jay Leno Show” was a disappointment on a network level. “It was working at acceptable levels financially, making money at 10 PM,” he said. “For the network, it was not a wrong decision.”
He also underlined that, insofar as he was concerned, the reason behind the limited viewership had nothing to do with the show or its level of quality. “There’s a lot of choice at 10 PM,” he said. “We thought it could be everybody’s second choice, but there were just so many other choices that people thought were better.” In the end, Gaspin conceded that “The Jay Leno Show,” while being easy entertainment, simply wasn’t the first or even second choice of enough viewers.