NBC has spent the better part of a year touting -- and then defending -- its decision to dump five hours per week of scripted programming for the much-cheaper "Jay Leno." It was described as a groundbreaking, industry-changing move that would create a new paradigm for broadcast TV.
On Thursday, NBC basically admitted -- by its actions, if not yet its words -- that its bold experiment had failed.
It's a messy defeat at a horrible time for the network, which is desperately trying to find any momentum it can to lift itself out of fourth place in advance of Comcast's pending acquisition of parent company NBC Universal.
It's also another black mark on the track record of NBC U chief Jeff Zucker, who risked heavy amounts of political capital on the idea of Leno in primetime.
In the end, the bet didn't pay off.
After hours of internet rumors and wild blog postings, by the end of the day Thursday it was clear that intense pressure from affiliates dissatisfied with Leno's poor primetime ratings was forcing NBC to move quickly to shake up the late-night status quo.
Changes now very likely as early as March.
According to people familiar with the situation, NBC executives are worried that a significant number of local stations -- perhaps up to a third -- could start bailing on "The Jay Leno Show" as early as this spring. That's because local sweeps periods are still used to set ad rates, and with Leno impacting local news ratings, stations already under intense financial strain fear they could take a bath if change doesn't happen soon.
As a result, NBC has all but decided it can't keep Leno at 10 p.m. beyond next month. Holding up an official announcement: Working out an alternative plan that also meets with the approval of both Leno and Conan O'Brien.
Both men have contracts which guarantee them millions if NBC changes the current situation, in which Leno airs at 10 and O'Brien at 11:35.
A scenario favored by some NBC insiders has Leno returning to 11:35 and O'Brien shifting back 30 minutes to 12:05. But that idea, while very much on the table, is not guaranteed to become reality, insiders told TheWrap.
Talks between Leno and O'Brien's reps have been ongoing. Ditto the conversations with affiliates, who've been increasingly vocal in their displeasure with the 10 p.m. lead-in Leno has been supplying.
NBC has also been preparing backup plans for months now, insiders said. The network has been researching various scheduling scenarios -- Leno at 8, Leno at 11, Conan at 12:05 a.m. -- to see how viewers might react.
Such base-covering is unsurprising given that networks are constantly researching and testing just about everything, from show concepts to timeslot switches. Still, it's an indication that the network had decided that change could very much be in the works -- and it wanted to be prepared.
NBC issued two statements Thursday -- first expressing support for Leno and then unofficially indicating that "The Jay Leno Show" had not been canceled. That latter statement might have ended the conversation, but NBC executives couldn't flatly deny that change was under discussion about moving Leno to a later (or earlier) timeslot.
Zucker has said previously that he discussed the idea of Leno at 8 p.m. with Leno -- but the host had rejected it. All signs are that Leno continues to be opposed to an early start.
The big question now is whether the almost inevitable shift of Leno out of his current 10 p.m. Monday-Friday timeslot will set off a reaction that leads to O'Brien walking.
Ergo, a second statement from NBC implictly expressing its hope that O'Brien stays at the network.
"We have the best comedy team in the business," NBC said. "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."
Fox has long been rumored as a possible home for O'Brien in case of emergency. ABC has been interested in Leno if he were available; it's not clear it would be willing to dump "Nightline" and/or push "Jimmy Kimmel Live" back for O'Brien.
Broadcasting & Cable Thursday noted that while NBC would pay a heavy penalty for removing O'Brien from his 11:35 perch, it could keep him off another network for two years. That's an eternity in TV years and likely unacceptable to the Conan camp, assuming O'Brien would want to continue in late night.
Leno acknowledged the craziness of the situation on his Thursday telecast, joking that, "If we did get canceled, it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that Fox is beautiful this time of year."
There's a chance NBC could finalize its plans as soon as Friday, but that may be a longshot. At this point, all may depend on how the O'Brien and Leno camps respond to NBC's mandate for change.
If NBC does need to scramble to fill 10 p.m. with non-Leno programming, industry insiders said it wouldn't be impossible. "There was a strike and the networks found shows," one wag noted.
Indeed, NBC could try airing some USA dramas on NBC for a short-term, or add a few more "Dateline NBC" editions to the mix. It also has several reality concepts without airdates.