NBC executives do not expect the just-concluded late-night
scuffle that has played out so publicly in the media and on late-night
programs to permanently damage Jay Leno.
"While a lot of this has been fodder for [the media] I think
in the end Jay Leno viewers don't care what Conan O'Brien's rabid viewers and
fans are saying," Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television
Entertainment, said during a phone interview Jan. 21.
"I think we are much more aware of it in this industry
because it becomes our daily topic. But I don't think the fan base that Jay has
between New York and [Los
Angeles] really cares all that much about the inner-workings and
the politics of Hollywood."
But NBC executives were blind-sided by O'Brien's
"People of Earth" epistle, released to the media, in which the
soon-to-be-former Tonight Show host
said he would rather leave the program than have it shunted to 12:05 a.m.
"The only time I was truly surprised is when his â€˜People of
Earth' letter came out," said Gaspin. "Everything else was pretty much par for
NBC reached an exit agreement with O'Brien that pays him
$32.5 million and lets him appear on a competing network after Sept.
Leno will resume his perch at The Tonight Show March 1. His final 10 p.m. broadcast will be Feb.
11, the eve of the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Conan O'Brien's final Tonight
Show is Jan. 22. But NBC viewers will continue to see him on Tonight reruns through Jan. 29 and most
likely up until Feb. 11 when the Olympics begin.
NBC plans to use its Olympic platform to promote Leno's
return to Tonight, but it will take an understated approach.
"Unlike the promotions for his 10 o'clock show we will
definitely be subtle," said Gaspin. "We are going to use humor and
remind people how much they liked Jay at 11:30."
Gaspin said that O'Brien's Tonight Show was on
track to lose money in 2010 -- a first for the 56-year-old
franchise -- due to a confluence of factors including faltering
ratings, increased competition in late-night and the downturn in advertising
revenue. Nevertheless, Gaspin expects Leno to
be "competitive" when he returns to face a resurgent David
Letterman at CBS and increased competition from ABC's Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel
He admitted that O'Brien did not have enough time to find
his voice on The Tonight Show, adding
"Nor do I think Jay had enough time to settle in at 10 o'clock."
"But we had no choice. And we tried to come up with a
compromise that would be at least fair to all parties."