As expected, the opening days of the 2010 Winter Television Critics Association tour in Pasadena were dominated by talk about NBC's failed experiment at replacing costly high quality dramas at 10 p.m. with a nightly comedy show hosted by displaced late-night personality Jay Leno. The critics' anticipation for NBC's Sunday morning executive panel with NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin and NBC and Universal Media Studios Primetime Entertainment president Angela Bromstad had been building since Saturday, somewhat overshadowing a busy day of presentations by CBS, Showtime and The CW. By Sunday morning it was white-hot.
The Gaspin-Bromstad session had the potential to become one of those mammoth publicity nightmares in which eager reporters pounce, unprepared executives offer lame answers to tough questions and the end result is something like throwing gasoline on an open flame. (Indeed, this was the case for NBC just last summer, when this same group of reporters and critics grilled Bromstad and her colleague Paul Telegdy for information about Leno's move to primetime and the two of them sat stunned like deer in headlights, as if this were the last subject reporters would be asking them about.) But Gaspin, in his first appearance on stage at a TCA tour since taking on responsibility for all of NBC Universal's television entertainment divisions, was masterful in his handling of the situation, deftly setting a congenial tone right at the start by observing, "I see we have a full house. I heard there were some scalpers outside."
Tellingly, that remark generated a bigger laugh than anything on The Jay Leno Show since its unfortunate debut.
Gaspin then confirmed that Leno had been cancelled and would not return after NBC's coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games; that he has proposed a new late-night lineup consisting of a half-hour version of Leno at 11:35 p.m., The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien at 12:05 a.m. and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at 1:05 a.m., and that his goal was to keep the hosts of those three shows at NBC, along with poor Carson Daly, whose early morning effort, Last Call with Carson Daly, would be jeopardized because there would be no room for it in the wee hours of the morning, which Gaspin described as "affiliate time" and "overnight time."
He also confirmed that unrest from affiliates who were watching their all-important 11 o'clock news programs slide from first to third in the ratings was the key factor in making this decision. Last year, network executives made clear that they would give Leno a full year in which to prove itself. Gaspin did insist that Leno was working as planned for the network and that NBC had been making money at 10 p.m. this season, largely because the show was so inexpensive to produce compared to the many hour dramas it replaced.
Leno's move to primetime was supposed to be a bold first attempt by NBC to reformat the traditional broadcast business model, which its executives have long asserted is unworkable and outdated, if not flat-out broken. Reminded of this, Gaspin replied, "I still think we're going to have to figure something out, not just for 10 o'clock but for broadcasting in general. For us right now, instead of trying to re-invent, going back to basics is probably the smartest play."
Of course, rumors were swirling on Sunday that O'Brien would reject this scenario and entertain other offers, including one from Fox. Executives from Fox are not scheduled to meet with TCA members until later today. They are undoubtedly bracing themselves for questions related to NBC's late-night mess and O'Brien's rumored distress.
Gaspin seems determined to clean-up the multiple disasters created by other NBC executives in recent years. In addition to detailing his intended efforts to fix the network's primetime and late night schedules, he announced that NBC will "go back to a traditional Upfront presentation" (set for the morning of Monday, May 17). That move will allow the network to once again take more time in evaluating its pilots and the strengths of its returning series. Bromstad announced that NBC has picked up drama series from such top-flight producers as J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, David E. Kelley and David Shore (House), among others.
The one false note Gaspin struck came when he was trying to convince the room that Leno, a truly dreadful show, didn't fail because of its content. "I don't think that people didn't watch Leno at 10 o'clock because of the quality of the show or because of what the show was," he insisted. "I think people just have a lot of choices at 10 o'clock. What really happened was there were just so many other choices that people thought were better."
As diplomatic and forthcoming as he was, not everyone in the room was ready to let Gaspin down easy.
"Almost immediately after Leno at 10 p.m. was announced, a lot of people in this room wrote stories questioning how this would affect the affiliates," one reporter declared, adding, "If these people, who make far, far less than people at NBC do, sort of saw this coming, how did no one at NBC Universal see it coming?"
Gaspin responded by noting that NBC was in partnership with its affiliates in this experiment and that independent research from both sides indicated that the Leno move "had a really good shot at working." The affiliates, he added, "are just as disappointed as we are that this isn't working."