What Scares Me Most About Leno's 10 P.M. Flop

Jeff Zucker called it “a mistake.” Jeff Gaspin said it was probably “too soon.” So, it would seem now that universally, NBC's move to strip Jay Leno's show at 10 p.m. will be remembered right up there with New Coke and the XFL.

Why exactly it tanked will be debated. I think a big part of it, from watching the show and actually sitting down with Leno one-on-one for an hour in his green room late last year, was that he just never wanted to do this at all. In my mind, that was all but confirmed when he told me way back then, in his first interview since the new show launched, that he would indeed go back to 11:35 if asked.

When I passed one NBC exec recently at the Television Critics Association press tour in the aftermath of Jeff Gaspin's Leno-centric press conference, this person said to me, “There's the guy who started this whole mess.”

While I assume the exec was referring to the Leno interview, which got ample media attention when Leno said what he did, I actually am worried that this “mess” is going to make us forget the real problem—that the network television business is still changing rapidly before our eyes. I'm concerned that this failed Leno experiment is going to give everyone cover to bury their heads right back in the sand and pray for sunny skies down the road.

Network television has had a nice season, that is certain. Fox, ABC and CBS have all put new shows on the air that, barring a Heroes-ian creative collapse, will undoubtedly be staples in their lineups for the foreseeable future. And American Idol's strong return in Simon Cowell's last season was a welcome development, to say the least, at Fox.

But there were leaks in the network ships even before the writers' strike and the economy's collapse blew massive holes in the vessels. The traditionally gigantic development and production costs to supply 22 hours of programming per week just aren't being offset by revenues, for the multitude of reasons we all know.

While some networks have fared much better than others, I'm concerned the Leno failure will send the pendulum rocketing back in the other direction, to the irresponsible, inertia-driven habits that haunt the business' long-term prospects. If indeed the networks return to the complacent business practices and assumptions of years past, it could be that The Jay Leno Show ends up causing destruction on more than just one network after all.

But there are plenty of other takeaways from the latest late-night roller coaster. Here are a few more:

News Corp. Should Hire Conan—Even for FX

I couldn't agree more with Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly and other network brass when they say Conan is a perfect fit for their company. But if the numbers just don't work out on the broadcast network, I would put him on FX every night at 11 or 11:30.

That would address many issues. First, News Corp. would not have to worry about clearing the show on stations across the country, which could take some time if O'Brien comes to the network. Financially, with the late-night daypart losing eyeballs and ad dollars in general, the numbers could make more sense with FX's dual-revenue stream if the company can't make it work on Fox.

And the move would come just as News Corp. insiders say the company is looking closely at ways to ramp up FX even more. The network has more original series underway than ever, in drama and comedy. And with Peter Rice now overseeing the network and its well-regarded leader, John Landgraf, several other options have been discussed, including pumping up FX's audience with multiple sports acquisitions, college and otherwise. Nabbing O'Brien would send a big message.

And finally, it would be great for Conan creatively. There was always a sense among NBC brass that O'Brien didn't “broaden out” his humor enough when he moved to 11:35. Whatever that means. But clearly moving his show to cable, where bears are free to do just about anything they want to themselves or others, would allow him to emphasize the edginess that helped him make his mark in the late-night landscape in the first place. Then again, if Conan stays on broadcast TV, a masturbating bear really is “So Fox.”

The Pressure Is On NBC's Development Team

Opening the 10 p.m. hour back up for non-Leno programming means that all eyes will be on NBC Entertainment President Angela Bromstad and her team. With Comcast executives watching closely, NBC has said it basically is going to try to spend its way out of this slump, making a bunch of pilots and signing deals with big-name talent.

So, there is scuttlebutt within the NBC Universal camp that Bromstad simply has to deliver at least one new hit out of the bunch next fall. The good news is that this past fall, we learned that network television can indeed still pump out more than one new hit as a collective, so that at least bodes well for her chances.

But if NBC's entire slate bombs, multiple company insiders have told me they believe the oft-bandied-about move of USA's Bonnie Hammer to run the broadcast network could finally happen.

Good News for NBC's Marketing Department

They will never say it out loud, but Conan's departure from the network just made the job a lot easier for NBC's marketing team.

Marketing Leno's return to 11:35 shouldn't be that hard, and the mammoth Olympics launching pad couldn't come at a better time. Leno's reputation will be just fine; he still delivered the eyeballs he always did at 11:35. Some clever campaigns about giving viewers what they wanted, returning the king to his throne, and even humorously playing off the mistake of moving Leno in the first place could all work.

But what would have been really hard would have been promoting Jeff Gaspin's plan that Conan turned down, in which he would have followed Leno's 11:35 half-hour show. If that had happened, NBC would have had to tread very lightly around the reputations of its two hosts, making sure to give equal billing to both. And clearly the network could not have disrespected O'Brien by saying anything in promos about Leno going back where he belongs, or whatever NBC is going to say to move Leno's five million or so viewers back to the slot after the news. So, losing O'Brien may be the best thing for the NBC marketing staff after all.

E-mail comments toben.grossman@reedbusiness.com, and follow him on Twitter:@BCBenGrossman