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Leno to Move Time Slot As Conan Takes One on Chin

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NBC is turning over its 10 p.m. hour to Jay Leno, Monday through Friday, to host a talk/variety show, sources report.

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker hinted that something like this was up early Monday, in a speech he delivered at a media conference in Manhattan. In that speech, Zucker pondered publicly whether NBC would continue to program three hours of prime time each night, and/or seven nights of prime time a week, as the network looked for ways to cut costs.

Word of signing Leno to a prime-time talk show -- believed to be a broadcast network first -- started leaking out soon thereafter. NBC did not return a call for comment.

Stripping Leno's show -- "stripping" is industry lingo for a show that runs in the same time slot every night across the week, and is usually applied to syndicated shows such as "Oprah" and "Access Hollywood" -- would greatly reduce NBC's prime-time programming costs. One industry executive estimated that by not having to develop five one-hour dramas for its 10 p.m. weekday timeslots, NBC could save somewhere in the vicinity of $150 million to $200 million annually, depending on what it's going to pay Leno.

NBC had been looking for a way to keep Leno -- still the late-night ratings leader -- on the ranch when it turns over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien on June 1. Five years ago, NBC brokered a contract with Conan, promising him "Tonight" in '09, to keep him from jumping to another network.

NBC's new Leno plans would seem to allow the network to uphold the letter of Conan's contract with NBC, but as word of the Leno development spread, many TV industry execs wondered whether it didn't spit on the spirit. Many bet Conan must be madder than a wet hen.

Why? Well, for instance, let's say you're a studio marketing exec trying to decide whether to book Really Hot New Movie Starlet X on Leno's NBC show, or Conan's NBC show. You are going to go with Leno pretty much every time, because the number of Homes Using Television at 10 p.m. is very much higher than at 11:30 p.m.

"Conan is not going to be the go-to place for talent [on NBC's schedule]," one competitor said gleefully. On the other hand, it does prevent Conan from having to compete against Leno at another network.

According to sources, Leno's show would be shot from his current "Tonight" show studio in Burbank. But NBC has built Conan a new "Tonight" show studio in Los Angeles, which would mean both of NBC's talk shows would be Los Angeles-based. This, as one TV industry executive contacted yesterday suggested, would be "hinky," and would give CBS's David Letterman carte blanche in New York. Unless NBC announces today that Conan will remain in New York after all, in light of the new development.

"You don't make this move unless you have a whole lot of holes to fill," one industry exec said of the Leno transplant to prime time. "If you're a network humming along, you're not going to give up five hours a week. This is an indictment of the complete collapse of [NBC's prime time] over the last four or five years."

Having Leno running at 10 means NBC will have more original programming than it currently has in the time slot. But it also means NBC's 10 p.m. weekday reruns are going to be pretty ugly, ratings-wise.

We're guessing the folks at Worldwide Pants were doing the happy dance yesterday. If you're David Letterman, your biggest foe is Leno, not Conan. Conan will not draw as broad an audience as does Leno.

Letterman's becomes the default broader-audience talk show at 11:30 p.m. weeknights when Leno moves to prime time. On the other hand, Leno will probably get most of the big "gets" before Letterman because of that whole HUT-level thing.

Industry navel-gazers had a lot to chew over with Zucker's latest when-the-going-gets-tough-look-like-a-visionary act, performed at a lunch in New York.

The NBC Universal chief is not the first broadcast network suit to throw out the options of cutting the number of hours of prime time that his network schedules, or perhaps giving up one of the lower-rated nights -- a.k.a. Saturday. But he's the first to act on it -- giving Leno five hours a week cuts the number of hours for Silverman to mess around with from 22 to 17. In the past, broadcast networks have balked at the idea because it's always involved giving the time slots back to local TV stations and once that's done, the broadcast networks would never get the time back. But Zucker, the out-of-the-box thinker who gave us prime-time series super-sizing, appears to have done it again.

We believe Zucker is also the very first major broadcast network exec to refer to MyNetworkTV as "a competitor."

As in:

Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in prime time? Three of our competitors don't.

Which Zucker said at that UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, according to press reports.

(The other two networks are Fox and CW, which do not program the 10-11 p.m. hour each night, as do ABC, CBS and NBC.)

* * *

Also on This Day in NBC:

The network celebrated Take Out the Trash Day early this year, when the press got wind of plans to sack both the head of the NBC/Universal's television production division (which is responsible not only for many of the prime-time shows airing on NBC, but also such out-bound series as Fox's "House) and the head of the NBC network's own entertainment division.

The axing of NBC's "alternative" department chief -- a.k.a. the guy who oversees reality TV development -- was also made official in a news release sent out yesterday afternoon.

Take Out the Trash Day is a time-honored TV industry tradition. Networks and TV studios like to announce an esteemed higher-up is "leaving to spend more time with the family" as close as possible to a holiday -- best-case scenario, the announcement goes out at 5 p.m. the day before -- in hopes that The Reporters Who Cover Television have left early for the holiday. Or, if the reporters aren't actually gone, at least the story will get buried in a news report that's read by very few because most of humanity is already off a-wassailing, or a-shopping, or a-hangovering, or whatev.

The latest lucky Take Out the Trashers are Katherine Pope, who was president of Universal Studios Media, and Teri Weinberg, the executive vice president of NBC Entertainment. Also Craig Plestis, who had been executive VP of alternative programming development and specials. These three lucky execs get to take the fall for NBC's really bad TV season, fraught with "My Own Worst Enemy," "Knight Rider," "America's Toughest Jobs," and MIA "Philanthropist," and "Merlin," etc.

NBC is struggling to hang on to third place, tied with Fox, among the 18- to 49-year-olds it targets and will fall to fourth once "American Idol" kicks in next month.

But NBC, being the glass-half-fullest TV place there ever was, did not dwell on its lousy ratings and pilot-less series development disaster in making yesterday's Take Out the Trash announcement.

Instead, it packaged the announcement in the prettiest "visionaries looking to the future" wrapping. As in: NBC Restructures Network and Studio Programming Divisions by Joining Together NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios and Appointing Two Executives to Oversee Worldwide New Premium Content Company.

Those two new executives who will oversee "worldwide new premium content company" are -- not that it matters because both will report to Silverman and Marc Graboff, the Frick & Frack of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios -- Angela Bromstad and Paul Telegdy.

Bromstad will oversee scripted series development for both the TV production division at the studio and the broadcast network's entertainment division. And Telegdy will head NBC's unscripted and specials programming.

Bromstad most recently was president of NBC Universal's international production in London. Telegdy used to be an exec veep at BBA Worldwide America. Telegdy is credited with overseeing the sale and launch of ABC's hit "Dancing With the Stars." NBC says he's also credited with executive-producing "Grease: You're the One That I Want" and "I'm With Stupid" for NBC, as well as "Viva Laughlin" for CBS -- things you'd think he'd want hushed up.

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