Think of Jay Leno as a prisoner in a frontier jail, NBC affiliates as the angry lynch mob forming out in the streets, and the network as the brave but beleaguered sheriff trying to protect him. Except nobody's ever mistaken NBC boss Jeff Gaspin for Gary Cooper. Gaspin handed over the keys to the jail Sunday, confirming that NBC has canceled Leno's prime-time show just four months after it began.
Widespread threats by affiliates -- furious that their hugely profitable 11 p.m. news shows were losing viewers because of Leno's poor performance as a lead-in -- to drop Leno's show caused NBC to cancel a program it had promised to stand by for at least a year and maybe longer.
"I asked [the affiliates] how many are they talking about, because I could have lived with one or two," Gaspin said of the threats to dump Leno's show in local markets. "But I got the sense that it was more than one or two."
What happens next isn't clear. NBC's proposal is to give Leno a half-hour show beginning at 11:30 p.m., then push the shows of late-night hosts Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon each back 30 minutes. Though that more or less resembles NBC's late-night lineup before Leno moved to prime time during the fall, NBC would call O'Brien's program The Tonight Show in an effort to avoid huge contractural penalties it must pay if O'Brien is removed as host.
But Gaspin said NBC is still waiting to see if Leno and O'Brien will accept the deal. Either man would be welcome at both Fox and ABC if they decideto bolt. Gaspin says he hopes to have the new lineup in place by Feb. 28, when the late-night schedule will return from a two-week hiatus created by NBC coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Whether the eventual shape of NBC's late-night lineup, the network's affiliates may wind up pondering the old adage about being careful what you wish for. In the short term, Leno's 10 p.m. show will be replaced by a mix of reality shows, news programming and new dramas, none of which are likely to bring in the massive audiences the affiliates are dreaming about.
Most of the new dramas (and, for that matter, new comedies) that NBC has introduced over the past three years have been dismal bombs in the Nielsen ratings -- and for that matter, the ratings are down for 10 p.m. shows at other networks, too. No one knows why, exactly, though one theory popular among network bosses is that viewers are using the hour to watch shows they recorded on their DVRs earlier in the evening.
It was precisely the 10 p.m. viewer drought that led NBC to try Leno's show in the first place. Talk shows are so much cheaper to make than dramas that NBC could make money even if Leno delivered a significantly smaller audience. And Gaspin said that part of the theory worked out: Leno's show was profitable, even though NBC's average audience in the 10 p.m. hour was down about 2 million viewers from the previous schedule.
But the network hadn't counted on the bitter reaction from affiliates. Gaspin said as many as a third of NBC's stations have suffered significant drops in ratings for their 11 p.m. news shows, which for most of them are the main profit centers. And NBC was also getting walloped at 11:30 p.m., where O'Brien's Tonight Show was pulling in 2 million viewers a night less than when Leno hosted it.
How many of these problems can be solved by shuffling the NBC lineup remains to be seen. One thing is certain: It won't be all of them. And another is a lot more likely than NBC wants to admit: It won't be any of them. Unlike TV westerns, TV business decisions don't always have happy endings.