Peter Lassally, a chief architect of The Tonight Show in the halcyon days of Johnny Carson, says he is saddened by NBC's decision to strip Jay Leno at 10 p.m., in effect lessening the importance of the 11:35 p.m. time slot it is handing over to Conan O'Brien.
“It doesn't feel good to me at all,” says Lassally, the longtime late-night producer who now helms Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show on CBS. “It is very depressing.”
Lassally says he should not be the only person disappointed in NBC's new lineup and what it means for The Tonight Show in the network's pecking order.
“If I were Conan O'Brien, I would be very upset,” he says.
However, O'Brien maintained that he believes NBC shifting Jay Leno to 10 p.m. doesn't make The Tonight Show a second-class citizen.
“To me that is sacred territory,” he said of the 11:35 time slot. “The Tonight Show has huge resonance for me and so, no, it doesn't in any way affect, I think, the show I'm getting.”
Speaking to television critics at the TCA press tour in Los Angeles, O'Brien defaulted to humor when pressed on whether The Jay Leno Show would diminish the time slot.
“My response is I don't need any help diminishing The Tonight Show, I've got that covered,” he said.
Lassally worked on The Tonight Show for more than two decades, leaving when Johnny Carson retired in 1992. He then became David Letterman's executive producer and now helms Ferguson's show.
Despite his personal disappointment, Lassally does understand why NBC is launching The Jay Leno Show weeknights at 10, thus keeping late night's top dog from jumping to a rival network.
“NBC was desperate to keep Jay Leno,” Lassally says. “But the mistake they made was five years ago when they decided he wasn't the man for the job. Now they just had to find a way to keep him. It's a very adventurous decision. It can change things for NBC in either direction.”
The topic of NBC's latest move was fodder for much talk in Los Angeles last week at the TCA press tour, with the entertainment chiefs at the other networks weighing in.
Former NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who now has the same title at Fox and calls his former network the “crazy ex-wife I can't get away from,” called the move a “little bit of a sad statement” about NBC.
“I give them a lot of credit for signing up Jay; I was surprised to see that,” Reilly said. “I think it's a smart strategic move for them in a very, very troubled place.”
CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said the move was an opportunity for her network.
“Our first reaction when they did that was to say 'Thank you,'” she said. “The creative community was, quite frankly, shocked when they first heard about it. So for us, we looked at it and said, why should one network's failure in development redirect an entire scheduling strategy?”
ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson also said he was excited by the opportunity created for his network by NBC's decision.
“We think it opens up beachfront real estate to fewer bidders,” he said. “Nina [Tassler] and I, we have different brands, so we're both kind of looking at it and excited there are viewers who have been left by the wayside.”
McPherson acknowledged the move also has him re-examining the late-night future and what it means for Jimmy Kimmel, whose ABC show airs at 12:05 a.m. McPherson has long coveted the 11:35 time slot currently occupied by Nightline.
“We're definitely looking at everything,” he said. “It definitely changes the landscape.”