Television

NBC May Send Leno Back To Late Night, Start Conan At Midnight

A fan holds a sign outside the premiere taping of The Jay Leno Show in the fall of 2009.

hide captionLast fall, fans were excited to see Jay Leno come back. Now, it looks like he might be going all the way back.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Update again: Kim Masters weighs in on Friday's 'Morning Edition.'

Update: Seriously, it's hard to explain just how crazy this story has been all day. The Times now has another update, stating that the plan is to keep Conan, put Jay at 11:30 for a half-hour, and start poor Jimmy Fallon after Conan at one in the morning.

What a couple of days for NBC and Jay Leno, topped off by reports that Leno's 10 o'clock show may be over, and he may be sent back to 11:30, right where he came from.

Let's go back a couple of steps. First, there were the reports a couple of days ago that NBC had ordered a lot of pilots — 18, to be exact — in what some suspected was a sign that the network was about done with the 10 p.m. Jay Leno experiment. Then this morning, there was a report that Jay was being canceled, from a site called FTV Live. (Never heard of it? Neither had many other people, which is part of why it was so odd.) Then NBC decided to make a statement in response, in which it denied that the show was canceled, while ... well, read it for yourself:

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.

Not exactly the most ringing endorsement one can make, and it doesn't actually say "we're leaving Jay Leno right where he is."

If anything, this watery denial only made the speculating louder, because even people who would never have put all that much stock in a report from "FTV Live" now had a super-weak official non-denial from NBC to stare at. But there was lots more to come.

Lots more, after the jump.

You should also be aware that the Television Critics Association press tour starts tomorrow — basically a giant meeting of TV critics who get opportunities to interview and question big swaths of the industry. That would be an opportunity for NBC to lay out any changes in plans that it might have to many of the country's TV writers at the same time. Of course, it would also presumably require them to answer questions from many of the country's TV writers at the same time. (More about TCA later, by the way.)

And then this afternoon, the web site TMZ.com posted a report that Leno was headed back to 11:30, his old slot, and that what remained to be seen was whether his show would be a half-hour, followed by Conan O'Brien's show, or whether it would be a full hour, in which case Conan would be out.

Now, Bill Carter, who covers television for The New York Times and wrote The Late Shift, the book about the battle for The Tonight Show between Leno and David Letterman and who spoke to representatives of NBC, is also reporting that NBC "may be considering" moving Leno back to 11:30. Giving that kind of response to Carter and not denying the TMZ report seems like pretty strong evidence that this is, indeed, the plan.

If this happens, what have we learned?

1. The "we'll turn ourselves into a cable network" model isn't ready yet to get past the local stations. NBC kept insisting that it was okay if Leno's show got bad ratings, because it was going to be so much cheaper — an attitude that ignored the fact that the affiliates couldn't care less how cheap the show is and won't appreciate massive drops in the audiences for their 11:00 p.m. newscasts. Just bellying up to the idea of smaller ratings for cheap shows may be a very sensible thing from the network's perspective, but as long as there are local stations with their own problems, this model isn't fully cooked yet.

2. Stinks to be Conan. This is, for now, a rotten turn of events for Conan O'Brien. He'll get another job, but despite the fact that he isn't the one who had this brilliant idea in the first place, seeing him be the guy who gets whipsawed is a little painful.

3. Bridge-burning could backfire. Remember when NBC canceled Southland and made John Wells so mad that he started making public statements dripping with disgust? Right. Well, if this is happening, NBC now needs five more hours of prime-time programming as of ... about a month from now, and while they may be able to stall from March to May with reruns and Dateline and perhaps the staff's home movies, they're going to need a real schedule in the fall, and having damaged their relationships with people who work in scripted television could cramp their options a little. We won't know until they're farther into the process, but they've really agitated a lot of the scripted-TV world, and getting those relationships going again may take time.

There's a lot of dust to settle yet, even if Jay moving back to 11:30 pans out: Conan's future, how on Earth they fill all that time, how much of this is eventually traced back to Comcast (which is in the process of buying NBC), and what the long-term effect on the network's reputation will be.

In the short term, having said today that Leno's show was performing just as they expected it would, on the same day they now admit to Carter they were holding talks with Leno and O'Brien about the future of The Tonight Show, makes the network look silly. At the same time, the idea that this project was doomed has been conventional wisdom for a while, and if they know it's not going to work, then in the long term, there's not necessarily any great valor in leaving it on a long death watch to save face instead of just pulling the plug.

Whether putting Jay Leno back at 11:30, if that's what they decide to do, is the right move or not — that remains to be seen. It's certainly depressing, content-wise, for those of us who greatly prefer O'Brien's style to Leno's and hoped that when this all went kablooey, Jay would be the one who moved on. In any event, a couple of the network's executives are about to face a giant room full of TV critics, so they're going to wind up having to say something.

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