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01.21.10

NBC Chief: 'No Press is Bad Press'

How does NBC expect fans to stay loyal after this month's chaos? Its top TV exec tells Kim Masters he hopes the battle was more closely followed in Hollywood than elsewhere.

How does NBC expect fans to stay loyal after this month's chaos? Its top TV exec tells Kim Masters he hopes the battle was more closely followed in Hollywood than elsewhere, and that Jay's "big fan base" will rally for him.

Following his agreement to leave NBC, Conan O'Brien wants to return to television as soon as possible. But that cannot occur before September. His assumed destination: Fox. Thus O'Brien continues to cement his image as the good guy and the victim in the late-night imbroglio.

NBC, which has taken a pounding financially and in public-relations terms, issued a statement Thursday morning confirming the move without mentioning O'Brien: Leno will go back to The Tonight Show on March 1, and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon will remain at 12:35.

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In an interview with The Daily Beast, NBC Universal Television Entertainment CEO Jeff Gaspin expressed optimism that Leno can overcome the obstacles before him. "Jay has a big fan base," he said.

Gaspin said he hopes that, despite the massive publicity and widespread interest in the story, this battle has been followed more closely in Hollywood than the rest of the country. He pointed out that Leno still plays to sell-out crowds when he performs stand-up. "There are some rabid Conan fans that probably never watched Jay and probably never will," he said.

Gaspin said television audiences are used to changes in schedules, and even though this has been especially dramatic and public, viewers will take this in stride.

But obviously this is not how things were meant to work out. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker has taken to the airwaves in recent days to cast the failed exercise of placing Jay Leno in prime-time as a bold gamble that simply didn't pay off.

O'Brien continued to thumb his nose at NBC on the air Wednesday night, proposing during his show to spend as much of the network's money as possible on routines that weren't funny but expensive. "We can do whatever we want and they have to pay for it," he told his audience. He displayed a blue Bugatti Veyron with mouse ears, saying that he was using "the most expensive car in the world" to the accompaniment of the Rolling Stones song, "Satisfaction," which involves expensive licensing costs "Does it add anything at all to this comedy bit?" he asked his cheering audience. "No it doesn't. Is it crazy expensive to play on the air? . . . Hell, yes."

O'Brien said the cost of the bit was $1.5 million.

It underscored how this exercise has been costly for NBC in every way. The settlement is reportedly $32.5 million for O'Brien and $12 million for his staff and industry observers estimate the damage to the network, all in, at about $200 million.

There has also been harm to the image of the star that NBC decided to keep. Leno has been pounded relentlessly on the air by fellow comics on the other networks, perhaps most personally by David Letterman. After Leno attempted to explain his side of the story in a statement on his show earlier this week, Letterman lashed back. Claiming, disingenuously, that “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Letterman—who obviously will now be re-matched against Leno in late night—said he had known Leno for many years and “what we’re seeing now is kind of vintage Jay.”

Noting that Leno had said no one should blame O’Brien for the unfolding brawl, Letterman observed—to applause--“No one is blaming Conan.” He went on to mock Leno for failing to leave NBC when the network laid plans for him to retire. “You leave,” Letterman said and, launching into an imitation of Leno’s voice, continued, “You don’t [say], ‘I’ll be in the lobby if you need me.’ You don’t hang around.”

The onslaught left Leno in a bind. When he lashed back at Letterman—alluding to Letterman’s infidelity and marital troubles—he exposed a mean-streak previously unseen by his fans. A major question now is whether Leno will be able to return to ratings dominance on The Tonight Show.

Asked about the damage to the NBC brand, Gaspin reiterated his hope that Hollywood cares more about the drama than the average Leno fan, adding, "What's the cliche? No press is bad press? I hope that's true in this case." He also said the Olympics provide "a great opportunity to bring luster back to NBC. It's coming at a perfect time."

As for O’Brien’s future, should Fox chose to put him on the air at 11 p.m., the network will have to sort through a thicket of issues with its affiliated stations. And there would be a cost to those stations. Some run extended newscasts that begin at 10 p.m. and continue until 11:30, incurring no significant expenses, while others have contracted to run syndicated programming.

But an informed source says Fox could likely clear between 60 and 70 percent of the country by September, when O'Brien—who has finally gained in the ratings throughout this brouhaha, and has emerged as the story’s hero--will be free to return to the air.

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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.