The Man Behind The 'Tonight' Controversy The upending of the late night schedule at NBC can be laid at the feet of NBC head Jeff Zucker. By moving Jay Leno to prime time, Zucker disturbed the ecosystem of viewing habits and created a downward slide of ratings leading into local news and the rest of the late-night schedule. One affiliate station revolt later, NBC has reversed itself while America watches.
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The Man Behind The 'Tonight' Controversy

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The Man Behind The 'Tonight' Controversy

The Man Behind The 'Tonight' Controversy

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Behind all the recent drama at NBC is one man, Jeff Zucker. The NBC Universal head recently celebrated when the company was bought by Comcast. Now as NPR's David Folkenflik tells us, Zucker's future doesn't look so clear.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Jeff Zucker's rise at NBC has been meteoric. He's credited with turning the "Today Show" into a profit behemoth and NBC News into a consistent ratings leader. But in his time atop the NBC network and its primetime lineup, that's a different tale.

Zucker had promised Conan O'Brien of NBC's "Late Night" that he could take over "The Tonight Show" last year, but Jay Leno's ratings there were still strong. Zucker wanted both in the fold: O'Brien for the future, Leno for now. So he gave Leno a daily, hourlong variety show at 10 p.m. Analyst Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners.

Mr.�LARRY GERBRANDT (Media Valuation Partners): What they did at the 10 o'clock time period was pretty much rolling the dice. It was all or nothing. Either all five nights worked or they didn't.

FOLKENFLIK: Snake eyes. Ratings were disappointing for both men, damaging not only the network's bottom line, but the profits of vital late newscasts for local NBC stations. The gamble failed. There's been a public outcry on O'Brien's behalf, and now the disarray at NBC is playing out for all to see on its airwaves. O'Brien told audiences he's trying to sell "The Tonight Show" on Craigslist, and Leno had his own response last night.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Jay Leno Show")

Mr.�JAY LENO (Television Host): As you know, there's a lot of controversy going on here at NBC. Actually, "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien's ratings have gone up. They've gone up. So, you're welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FOLKENFLIK: Now, in a complete reversal of programming decisions Zucker made only a few months ago, Leno is being taken out of that 10 p.m. hour and shoehorned back into that familiar 11:30 slot. But Conan O'Brien has refused to move his own show back to a start after midnight. And now Dick Ebersol, a senior NBC official, has shot back, calling O'Brien gutless in The New York Times.

James Poniewozik is the television and pop culture critic for Time magazine.

Mr.�JAMES PONIEWOZIK (Television and Pop Culture Critic, Time): Jay, they figure, will pull better ratings right now. And I think that NBC is in such a bad situation that they just do not feel they have the luxury of long-term thinking.

FOLKENFLIK: Zucker thought he had made a master stroke. Despite a big paycheck for Leno, his show was far less expensive than the dramatic, hourlong scripted series that had been a hallmark of NBC's must-see TV, shows like "E.R." and "Law & Order."

Mr.�PONIEWOZIK: I would say in Zucker's defense that he's gotten it right about some of the big picture things, about, you know: What are the problems with broadcast TV today? I think that NBC came up with what turned out to be exactly the wrong solutions to those problems.

FOLKENFLIK: Under Zucker, the network has plummeted from first to last, and the NBC brand and "The Tonight Show" aura have been damaged. Poniewozik says the network chief bears responsibility.

Mr. PONIEWOZIK: There's really no way he can disclaim it. He's been running the network in one capacity or another for about the past 10 years. You know, it had come off a decade of dominance, of greatness in the '90s, and now it is in shreds.

FOLKENFLIK: Lawyers for NBC and O'Brien are trying to work out the terms of his departure. As for Zucker, his new bosses at Comcast have said he'll continue to lead NBC after the purchase is approved by regulators.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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