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It's Official: NBC Cancels—and/or Promotes—Jay Leno

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Presenting its midseason programming to TV reporters and critics in Pasadena this weekend, NBC made official its not-exactly a secret: after Feb. 11, The Jay Leno Show will be no more, at least at 10 p.m. NBC executives said that while Leno’s show was making money for the network (by lowering its costs even though it lowered the ratings), it had also brought the affiliates to the verge of revolt, because of the damage to their local newscasts.

As a reward for so doing, Leno will be restored to 11:30—where he wanted to be in the first place—doing a half-hour show. Or that’s the plan, because only Leno’s agreed to it so far. The state of play:

* Leno would go to 11:30, doing The Jay Leno Show, or The Almost Tonight Show, or whatever they’re going to call it. Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show would move to midnight, and Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night to 1 a.m. Carson Daly would go to… well, to New Year’s Eve.

* That is what NBC would like, among other reasons because they would then not have to lose Leno or O’Brien to another network, or pay them a massive payoff for canceling them outright. But neither O’Brien nor Fallon has yet signed on, and Fox is reportedly sniffing around O’Brien’s dressing room.

* The Leno departure leves NBC with five hours at 10 p.m., which it will fill with… ahem, did it leave those shows in its other pants? NBC Universal entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin said the network will work up until the last minute to fill the schedule. But it has few new scripted shows ready, so we’re probably looking at a  mix of existing dramas, reality shows and Dateline.

* To put a positive spin on things, NBC also “announced” several new series pilots, most of which had been announced before, including shows from J. J. Abrams, David E. Kelley and Jerry Bruckheimer.

* In short, it is January, and NBC does not know what, oh, ten or fifteen hours of its schedule will look like in a month and a half. This is going to be fun. It’s like NBC unilaterally declared a writers’ strike against itself.

The big unanswered question, to me, remains why NBC made the change so abruptly, thus leaving itself in chaos. Yeah, yeah, the affiliates were mad. But let’s be honest: NBC always knew the affiliates would be mad. That was, in a way, the plan. NBC said flat-out they expected 10 p.m. ratings to drop with Leno. NBC either expected local news to miraculously hold up, or, more likely, thought that affiliates had little enough leverage now that it could tell them to suck it up.

What changed? The acquisition by Comcast. Gaspin says Comcast, which does not yet own NBC, did not influence the decision, but that is unpersuasive; the fact that NBC wants everything to go smoothly in the deal’s approval had to give affiliates more leverage. (And, by the way, since they are about to get bought by a cable operator, it may be the most leverage they ever have again.)

In any case, while Gaspin acknowledged Leno didn’t work out, he semi-defended the move, saying that NBC may need to try “imaginative” scheduling before long again. And you know, easy as it is to mock them right now, he has a point. Leno was the wrong solution for NBC’s problems, but those problems are as real as ever: the broadcast business model is fading, it’s harder to support a lot of scripted programming, and it hasn’t been able to launch 10 p.m. dramas seemingly in centuries.

In any case, What Will Conan Do? and What Will NBC Program? promise to be two of the most exciting shows in TV for the next several weeks. Too bad NBC can’t televise them.