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01.10.10

Fighting for Conan

Network chief Jeff Gaspin says no deal has yet been made to keep Conan, and NBC has to get “back to basics” to minimize the damage caused by the catastrophic Leno experiment.

Conan O'Brien "would be happier" off the peacock network, a source tells the New York Post. Kim Masters on NBC's race to keep him—and the "back to basics" plan following Leno's failure.

After long boasting of plans to reinvent television, embattled NBC executives made it clear Sunday that what’s old is new again at the network. Jay Leno will return to 11:35 and new shows will be coming from producers as established as Jerry Bruckheimer, J.J. Abrams and Dick Wolf. The network is even planning a remake of  The Rockford Files, for heaven’s sake.

“Going back to basics is probably our smartest play,” said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.

“It pained him,” Gaspin said about convincing his boss, Jeff Zucker, that Leno needed to move. “He challenged me every step of the way.”

But as he met the ravening press at a gathering of television journalists in Pasadena, Gaspin couldn’t answer the big question still hanging over the network: Whither Conan O’Brien, who is said to be unhappy at being ousted from his 11:35 p.m. perch?

“My goal right now is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy [Fallon],” Gaspin said. “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."

Gaspin stressed in his comments that NBC wanted to stick with Leno at 10 p.m. for a year but was facing a revolt from affiliates. From NBC’s perspective, he said, the Leno show was profitable and might have improved, especially if it could have aired in the summer when the competition would have been weaker. But NBC’s affiliates, watching their local 11 p.m. newscasts get slammed because of the soft lead-in from Leno, had lost patience. According to sources, the affiliates were not only threatening to pre-empt the Leno show at 10, but to go even more nuclear by opposing the pending Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal. (NBC sources deny that.)

“They gave us through November,” Gaspin said. “At the end of November, it [was] not really getting much better... We said let’s look at December, and the Leno show actually did do better in December.”

But not better enough. As a growing number of affiliates threatened to pre-empt the show, Gaspin said he realized “that this was not going to go well.” Resisting in the face of an affiliate rebellion would have damaged Leno and the network, he said.

Gaspin said he considered every option and tried to find the compromise most likely to keep all the talents at the network. “We have made it clear that The Tonight Show is moving with [O’Brien],” Gaspin said. “What’s important to Jay is telling jokes at 11:30. What’s important to Conan, beyond that, is having The Tonight Show.”

He declined to provide any information about the contract that could determine whether O’Brien can leave if he chooses. Also unclear is whether O’Brien has any serious suitors. (While Fox has been mentioned, some observers are skeptical about the network’s interest.)

Gaspin tread carefully when asked about the role of his boss, Jeff Zucker, the president and CEO of NBC Universal. Zucker is the architect of the Leno-at-10 experiment, as well as some other interesting experiments that have pushed NBC into fourth place. Gaspin portrayed a process in which he led a reluctant Zucker to approve the decision to pull Leno from 10 p.m. Finally, he said, “he just let me pull the trigger.”

“It pained him,” Gaspin added. “He challenged me every step of the way.”

They talked about keeping Leno at 10 p.m., three nights a week or two nights a week. But ultimately, “We realized this was our best choice and perhaps our only choice.” He said Comcast played no role in the discussion. But obviously NBC management has every incentive to show improvement before the new bosses take over and hardly needed explicit instruction from Comcast about that.

Asked how NBC can undo the damage inflicted on both Leno and O’Brien through this exercise, Gaspin replied, “I think time, frankly, just time.” He added that it helps when the comedians joke about their situation.

Gaspin also pointed out that the 10 p.m. time period is still a huge problem—for all the networks. Having ceded the hour to CBS and ABC, he observed, both those networks still actually saw their ratings erode during the time period. “People just have a lot of choice at 10 o’clock,” he said, adding that the DVR has an enormous impact at that hour because people have the chance to watch shows that they’ve saved.

According to Gaspin, it wasn’t necessarily wrong for the network to have taken the enormous risk of putting Leno in prime time. “We might have been too early on this one,” he said. “Maybe there's still a little more life left [in prime time] for us to mine. I hope so.”

Clearly, rebuilding the NBC schedule will require time, money, and luck. At this point, Gaspin just wants to see the ratings improve. “I almost don’t care how quickly it happens as long as it happens,” he said. “As long as I see it going up instead of sideways and down, I’ll be happy.”

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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.