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NBC Wants to Set Late-Night Plans Before January 21 Affiliates Meeting

NBC is continuing its ongoing discussions about the plans for Jay Leno and the late-night lineup, and would like to come to a decision before its upcoming affiliates board meeting on January 21 in New York.

One plan being discussed seriously would restore Leno to 11:35, and bump back Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon one half hour each.

That would make sense--although NBC execs have publicly maintained The Jay Leno Show's ratings were performing as expected, they have quietly told insiders they were very surprised by the overwhelmingly negative effect on late news and the late night time slots, and would need to do something about it.

With all the talk surrounding yet another potential late-night shake-up, much attention has already turned to where Conan O'Brien may end up if Leno returns to 11:35. Clearly O'Brien's future with the network hangs in the balance, and NBC holds all the cards.

According to multiple sources with knowledge of O'Brien's contract with NBC, the network could keep O'Brien off of rival airwaves for two more years even if they decided to completely bench him from NBC, based on his "pay or play" arrangement.

But with NBC due to pay O'Brien roughly $25 million over two years, should NBC have decided to jettison O'Brien, the two sides could also negotiate an early release, with options including a smaller payout in exchange for O'Brien's freedom after one year, or even immediately.

Late Thursday, NBC felt inclined to issue a statement supporting O'Brien, saying, "We remain committed to keeping Conan O'Brien on NBC. He is a valued part of our late-night line-up, as he has been for more than 16 years and is one of the most respected entertainers on television."

While NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker is the one often tied to the Leno move, it is actually NBC television chief Jeff Gaspin that has been the point man for the company in the meetings with the late-night parties that are currently taking place.

And multiple sources have made note of Gaspin's tact, with one saying, "It is refreshing to see his honesty and him taking full responsibility for whatever he decides."

But with the prospect of Leno returning to 11:35--one possibility being discussed and something he exclusively told B&C he would do--speculation immediately turned to O'Brien.

While sources say ABC probably would not be interested in O'Brien, multiple sources with knowledge of Fox's thinking say they believe the network would be interested in O'Brien if the numbers made sense. News Corp. executives have looked at opening up an 11 p.m. late-night time slot in the recent past.

And O'Brien's price tag may have come down based on The Tonight Show ratings falloff since he replaced Leno and NBC's initial trumpeting of his premiere week numbers.

"I think Conan is in a rough spot," says one Hollywood insider. "We know he can't beat Letterman now. He's the kid who was given the Ferrari and returned a dented BMW."

Additional reporting by Melissa Grego and Michael Malone.