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01.07.10

Will Leno Stay at NBC?

NBC scrambles to return Leno to his late night throne. Can the network keep both Leno and Conan O’Brien in the fold? (If Leno’s monologue from Thursday’s show is any indication, the answer may be no.) The Daily Beast's Kim Masters reports.

NBC scrambles to return Leno to his late-night throne. Can the network keep both Leno and Conan O’Brien in the fold? (If Leno’s monologue from Thursday’s show is any indication, the answer may be no.) The Daily Beast's Kim Masters reports.

After a day of reacting to one Internet report after another, NBC appears to be hoping that it can broker a deal to keep both Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien on the air in late night. But the experiment of trying Leno five nights a week in prime time seems to concluding at the end of the month.

Is Leno angry? Tonight in his monologue he jokes about having stashed "four guns in his locker." (A partial transcript is at the end of the article.)

According to the deal reported in The New York Times, NBC wants Leno to go on the air at 11:35 for 30 minutes, followed by O'Brien at 12:05 and Jimmy Fallon at 1:05. That would have certain virtues from NBC's standpoint but it is not at all clear that the comedians are on board with this plan. Conspicuously absent from the Times story was any comment or confirmation from Leno or O’Brien. (NBC declined to comment on the report other than issuing a statement about its regard for O'Brien.)

All in all, it was a dark day for NBC from a public-relations standpoint. After digging itself into a deep hole for five hours a week in prime time since September, the network failed to deliver a clear solution to the problems created when the new Leno show faltered. Instead, all day Thursday, NBC issued cryptic statements in response to rampant online speculation about the fate of Leno and O'Brien.

Here’s one:

"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.”

Such statements did nothing to enhance the prestige of either Leno or O’Brien. So it is possible that the situation is not quite resolved despite NBC's hopes.

It is also possible that Comcast, which is in the process of acquiring NBC Universal, will not be impressed by the handling of the situation. (A high-level NBC Universal source says the decision to change the Leno show was not prompted by Comcast, which is keeping a low profile while federal review of the acquisition is pending.)

NBC is clearly planning a change just days before it promotes its new mid-season programming Sunday at a gathering of profoundly skeptical television critics in Pasadena, and just days before a meeting with its affiliates board.

As the network continues to insist that Leno has met its modest expectations, the show has been yet another serious problem for the already-troubled network. Not only has Leno failed to draw ratings at 10 p.m., but NBC's affiliates have seen the viewership plummet for their critically important 11 p.m. local newscasts because of the weak lead-in provided by Leno. O'Brien has also been fighting a losing battle at 11:35 p.m., eroding NBC's previously dominant position in that time slot.

While cable giant Comcast is many months away from completing its purchase of NBC Universal, there has been abundant speculation that the owners-to-be would want to reclaim the 10 p.m. slot with scripted programming which, if successful, can still prove lucrative.

Thursday’s debacle does raise intriguing questions about Leno's next move. While NBC devised the 10 p.m. show as a way of keeping him at the network (having committed to giving O'Brien the Tonight Show slot), there has been speculation that Leno might leave after all if his 10 p.m. show were pulled. Chances are that both Fox and ABC would both be delighted to give Leno a late-night show should he make himself available. Some in Hollywood wonder, however, whether the unsuccessful foray into prime time will prove to have damaged the Leno brand.

Just to illuminate Leno’s possible state of mind, here's a partial transcript of Leno's Thursday night monologue:

Happy Birthday to Katie Couric, it's her birthday today. She left NBC for another network. I have to give her a call to see how that is working out.

As you may have heard, there is a rumor floating around that we were canceled. 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 canceled 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 wear are fine. We are OK.

You know what happneed? 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.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.