By making the "tough call" on the failed experiment known as Jay Leno at 10 p.m., NBC's Jeff Gaspin said he's trying to make the best of a bad situation. But while granting Leno his old 11:35 slot perhaps solved one problem, it just creates another: the strong possibility that Conan O'Brien could leave.
Gaspin took full ownership of the decision to pull Leno from primetime during a remarkably candid session with reporters Sunday at the TV Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena.
"I just made the tough call," he said.
He also took ownership of the dilemma he now faces.
"My goal right now is to keep Jay, Conan and Jimmy as part of our late night lineup," he said. "As much as I would like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that's not true. The talks are still ongoing."
Gaspin knows Leno wants "The Tonight Show" back, while O'Brien doesn't want to move back 30 minutes. Gaspin wouldn't say if either Leno or O'Brien had accepted the plan, but the tone of his remarks indicated what's been clear for days: O'Brien is the only question mark.
Gaspin said he understood the risks of this gambit, and acknowledged that "it's a fluid situation" and wanted to give "everyone the weekend to think about it."
The executive said he "can't imagine" there won't be a deal in place by post-Olympics. That's when NBC's plan is to shift Leno to 11:35 and O'Brien to 12:05, with Jimmy Fallon at 1:05. He said he's all but certain Leno's 11:35 show would still be called "The Jay Leno Show": "That's the brand we're selling," he said.
As TheWrap previously reported, up to one-third of NBC affiliates had been loudly complaining about Leno's impact on their local news, Gaspin confirmed. He wouldn't say just how many were threatening pre-empting Leno, but it clearly was a significant enough number to force NBC's hand.
While NBC could have challenged affiliates, who are contractually obligated to air whatever NBC programs unless they have community standards issues, Gaspin said it would've created a PR nightmare for NBC had such a revolt taken place in the open.
"They made it clear they were going to be more vocal in their displeasure," he said.
"This was not going to go well for us."
Still, Gaspin maintained that at the network level, there was no panic -- at least not yet.
"This was not an issue for the network," he said, adding that, financially, NBC was still making money with Leno at 10.
Gaspin said NBC first started getting indications as early as fall that affiliates were concerned that the impact on their newscast was worse than expected. By December, once smaller markets started seeing numbers from the November sweeps, something close to panic started setting in among some stations.
Their bottom line to NBC: Dump Leno -- or we will.
In December, Gaspin ordered his staff to begin coming up with different ideas for what options NBC had. "We looked at every conceivable scenario," he said.
In a perfect world, Gaspin said he would have delayed action on the decision-- perhaps telling affiliates at a planned January confab that the network might be willing to make a change this fall.
"I would have preferred (that) instead of crashing a schedule," he said. "I would have much preferred to concentrate on launching new hit shows instead of now explaining to people why we have a new schedule. I would have much preferred to wait until summer, to give (the shows) more time, to see the summer ratings."
So Gaspin called Zucker to push the button.
"We'd be having conversations," he said, noting Zucker had heard of the affiliate rebellion. "I said, 'I think it's time ... we have to make the call.' He understood and he didn't disagree. He challenged me every step of the way ... In the end, he realized this was our best choice and perhaps our only choice."
Gaspin presented his plan to O'Brien, Leno and Jimmy Fallon on Thursday, and said all three men had been "gracious" and "professional" in their meetings. He said he didn't know how they reacted privately.
And what about one of O'Brien's reps at Endeavor, Ari Emanuel? Gaspin indicated he wasn't as calm -- but didn't fly off the handle, either.
"You know, based on reputation? Not nearly as bad as I thought he'd be," Gaspin said.
Gaspin conceded the way the news got out wasn't optimal but said he's not certain O'Brien or Leno found out about his plan from the media, as most have assumed. In any case, he said he was surprised word didn't leak out sooner.
"It was a real deal days before (the first reports). I'm actually surprised it held the few days it did," he said.
Other tidbits from Gaspin's remarks on Late Night Crisis 2010:
--Gaspin indicated Fallon wouldn't be harmed by a shift to 1:05 a.m. "It gives him a lot of creative freedom," he said. "I think he's going to be incredibly experimental."
--Carson Daly will "remain part of the NBC family," Gaspin said. He didn't say whether that meant it was last call for "Last Call" if O'Brien decides to stay at NBC -- though NBC doesn't have full affiliate clearance for shows airing at 2:05 a.m.
--He rejected the idea that O'Brien's ratings were an issue for NBC, and said if O'Brien stays, he's not worried how he'd do in a later slot. While not as high as the network might have hoped, "The ratings he's doing now are acceptable at 11:30, so I'm sure they'd be acceptable at 12 oclock," Gaspin said.
--NBC will fill the 10 p.m. slot, in the short term, with two hours of scripted programming, another reality show and likely an expanded "Dateline."
And on other topics (yes, other questions were asked, mostly about NBC's primetime performance), Gaspin:
--Said he wants to be patient in letting new shows find their way and to make ratings gains. "I don't care how quickly it happens -- as long as it happens," he said. "As long as (we have) a arrow going up as opposed to the side or down I'll be happy."
--Expressed confidence in entertainment president Angela Bromstad and her ability to deliver new hits. He said early buzz on development is strong.
--Declared something of a recovery on Madison Ave. "The (scatter) ad marketplace is incredibly healthy," he said.
For more TCA news, follow @tvmojoe on Twitter for live updates from Pasadena.