NBC drops Leno from prime time, orders new dramas
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC said on Sunday that it was abandoning its cost-cutting prime time experiment with talk show host Jay Leno, and was "going back to basics" by ordering up a slate of new scripted dramas and comedies.
NBC Universal television entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin told television reporters that because of pressure from its local affiliates, starting February 12 "The Jay Leno Show" would no longer air in the 10 p.m. slot it had occupied five nights a week since September 2009.
Gaspin said General Electric Co's NBC was still in talks with Leno, and its late night show hosts Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon about moving all their current shows to a later hour.
Gaspin said NBC had come under pressure from its local affiliates who complained they had lost 30 percent of their audiences for news at 11:00 p.m. because of the small 5.8 million average audience for the Leno show beforehand.
The announcement was an embarrassing retreat for NBC, which is struggling in bottom place among the four leading networks and had made the unprecedented move to replace traditional and costly dramas at 10 p.m. with the less expensive Leno program.
Gaspin said the network was still working on what shows NBC would run at 10 p.m. in place of Leno. The new line-up will not come into place until after NBC's coverage of the winter Olympics in Vancouver from February 12 to 28.
Looking to the future, he said NBC had given the go-ahead for six new scripted dramas and two comedies for the 2010-2011 TV season in a bid to rebuild its commitment to more traditional programing. The network has struggled in recent years to find a break-out hit to replace 1990s shows like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "ER".
'BACK TO BASICS'
"Right now, instead of trying to reinvent, we are going back to basics," he said.
The new shows in development include an updated version of the 1970s detective show "The Rockford Files," a new legal drama from Emmy-award winning writer David E. Kelley called "Kindreds," and an action thriller titled "Chase" from Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the most successful movie and TV producers in the United States.
Gaspin said the network had been making money from "The Jay Leno Show" in its 10 p.m. slot and denied reports that NBC had come under pressure to make the change from its prospective new owners, Comcast.
Comcast, the biggest U.S. cable distributor, struck a deal in December to buy a majority stake in NBC Universal from General Electric. The deal is subject to regulatory approval.
"This was not an issue for the network. It was an issue for the affiliates," Gaspin said of "The Jay Leno Show". "Financially we were actually making money at 10 p.m. ... For the network it was not yet a wrong decision."
Gaspin said he hoped to move Leno to 11:35 p.m., "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" to 12:05 a.m., and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to 1:05 a.m., but stressed that nothing had been settled.
"Jay and Conan and Jimmy were incredibly gracious and professional and they all said they understood a difficult problem," Gaspin said, declining to give details.
Gaspin defended NBC's controversial decision to experiment with its prime time schedule. "I don't think it's wrong to take chances. We might have been too early on this one," he said.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)