For the past several years, NBC executives have been promising to revolutionize broadcast television. On Sunday, the network sent a different message: Never mind.
In a remarkable session with reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, confirmed that next month the network would end its heavily publicized experiment to replace costly scripted dramas with Jay Leno’s much cheaper 10 p.m. talk show, which by delivering low ratings sparked a mutiny among NBC-affiliated stations. “The Jay Leno Show” will end its run Feb. 12, Gaspin said, with Leno returning to his old late-night berth at 11:35.
That leaves the fate of Conan O’Brien and “The Tonight Show” up in the air, although Gaspin said that the network had proposed pushing that program -- a staple of the network’s schedule since 1954 -- to 12:05 a.m. and that talks were continuing.
“As much as I’d like to tell you we have a done deal, the talks are still going on,” said Gaspin, a veteran NBC executive who appeared relaxed and at times was even humorous despite the heated speculation that has surrounded the network in recent days. Gaspin turned aside questions about a deadline, calling it a “fluid situation,” but made it clear he expected a deal in place well before NBC unveils its Winter Olympics telecasts next month.
But Gaspin, sharing the stage with NBC’s prime-time entertainment president, Angela Bromstad, went beyond simply confirming the network’s determination to return Leno to late night. His comments amounted to a near-total retreat from the network’s recent business and program planning, which had emphasized profit margins and innovative advertising deals over the traditional broadcaster concerns of ratings and finding hit shows.
Two years ago, Gaspin’s boss, Jeff Zucker, turned heads at a TV programming convention in Las Vegas by saying that changing technology and a scattering audience called for “a reengineering of our businesses from top to bottom.” NBC ambitiously announced that it was abandoning the traditional “upfront,” where much of the networks’ advertising is usually sold in bulk, and that it would make far fewer pilots than in the past. Zucker had also hired Ben Silverman, a brash agent-turned-producer, to oversee programming and shake down product placements and unconventional advertising deals.
But now, with its schedule in tatters and affiliates in revolt, a chastened NBC seems to have been cured of its desire to remake the industry.
“For us right now, instead of trying to reinvent, going back to basics is probably the smartest play,” Gaspin told reporters.
He said the network would return to the customary upfront process -- a line that drew applause from the otherwise quiet NBC executives seated in the back of the ballroom, suggesting a high degree of internal relief. Bromstad, meanwhile, assured reporters that NBC was leaping back into scripted program development.
Its new Jerry Seinfeld series, “The Marriage Ref,” will preview after the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. The network also touted “Parenthood,” a star-studded pilot based on the hit movie from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, as well as another pilot directed by J.J. Abrams.
NBC has forged deals with other noted (and expensive) producers including Jerry Bruckheimer and David E. Kelley, boldface names whose invocation seems intended to send an all-clear signal to program suppliers who have looked on the network’s recent program plans with a mixture of fear and disgust.
NBC’s prime-time schedule after Leno returns to late night is being worked out, Gaspin said, but the comic’s current weeknight show will probably be replaced by two scripted dramas, a reality series and possibly an expanded version of “Dateline.”
Gaspin also offered the fullest account yet of the timeline behind the Leno-O’Brien fiasco. In November, big-city affiliates began complaining to NBC that their late local newscasts, the key driver of station profits, were being affected more than they had expected by Leno’s low ratings. Some station managers saw newscasts plummet from first place to No. 3 in their markets. Smaller stations chimed in once they realized their numbers were trending in the same direction, Gaspin said.
“Towards the middle of December, they made it very clear they were going to start being more vocal about their displeasure,” Gaspin said. “They started to talk about the possibility of preemption. It was then that I realized that this was not going to go well if we kept things in place.”
Gaspin made it clear, though, that it was the stations, not NBC bosses, that had the problem with Leno’s show. “It was working at acceptable levels financially” for the network, he said.
And as for the 10 p.m. slot? Well, stay tuned.
“We still think it’s a tough time period,” he said.
Staff writers Joe Flint and Meg James contributed to this report.