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Leno: Anatomy of a Late-Night Meltdown

It started with an affiliate phone call on Monday, and quickly unraveled from there

The beginning of the end of the Jay Leno Experiment began with a phone call between NBC entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin and the heads of the various NBC affiliates on Monday, one week ago.

Gaspin had been hoping to convince the network’s restless partners that "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. should be given more time to work, according to executives familiar with the call.

After all, the comedian had had some improvement in ratings at the end of December – close to a 2, rather than the more anemic scores he’d had previously – and Gaspin hoped that might buy some goodwill.

It didn’t. The affiliates were unhappy, and making it known. They wanted Jay out. Worse, the board chairman of the affiliates, Michael Fiorile, told Gaspin that he couldn’t hold off the mutiny. The affiliates’ dissatisfaction with Leno’s poor ratings, which was killing their local newscasts, was going to start leaking into the media, he feared.

That would deeply hurt Leno. And what was worse, some affiliates were about to defect and program something else in the 10 p.m. slot. 

Gaspin asked Fiorile: “Will we lose one or two?”

Fiorile said it was more likely to be as many as 12 affiliates that would bolt.

On Tuesday, Gaspin was still thinking hard about what to do. He wanted to consider moving Leno out of the 10 p.m. slot, back to 11:30. But he knew that doing so would be a deep embarrassment to his boss, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker, who had staked his own reputation on rescuing the last-place network with the Leno move.

Gaspin swallowed hard, and picked up the phone. “Jeff, I think we have to do this,” he told Zucker on Tuesday afternoon.

Zucker understood, but asked if he could sleep on it. Gaspin agreed, reasoning that if the executives were already considering a cancellation in May ahead of the advertising upfronts, there was little difference in making the move in February or March.

On Wednesday, with Zucker’s buy-in, Gaspin called Leno to give him the bad news. He said he was thinking of canceling the 10 p.m. show and moving the host back to his old slot at 11:30. Leno was accepting. But Gaspin still hadn’t decided what to do, and planned to tell Conan O’Brien of the change before fully making a choice.

On Thursday, Gaspin let the affiliates know that he was moving a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 12, to Jan. 21. He needed more time.

But the move apparently led some stations to conclude that Gaspin was going to do what they wanted and cancel Leno. One apparently leaked the news to a South Florida blogger.

NBC was forced to deny the story, but in a ham-handed way.

At this point, Gaspin was scrambling. He quickly called Ari Emanuel, one of O’Brien’s agents, who was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And he informed another agent, Rick Rosen, of the change he was contemplating, which included keeping O’Brien on at midnight.

Then he asked O’Brien and his executive producer Jeff Ross to come over for a meeting.

In the time it took to walk to Gaspin’s office on the studio lot, O’Brien had already gotten the call from his agents with a heads-up. He was braced for bad news. But he reacted “like a professional,” Gaspin said Sunday. Like an unhappy professional, said others. (NBC is still thoroughly unsure of whether O’Brien will stay.)

In short order, TMZ.com reported that Leno was moving to 11:30, and that Conan O’Brien was being canceled.

Then came the deluge, with the national media jumping on the story, besieging the network with calls as to what was happening. The network was forced to acknowledge the plan to move Leno back to his old slot and try to keep O’Brien at midnight.

The kicker came on Friday, when the top NBC network executives met with a team of their new owners, Comcast.

“Good luck with Leno,” said one top Comcast executive, apparently unperturbed by the turmoil that led to the end of the network’s most dramatic – and catastrophic – programming change in a decade.