NBC in embarrassing retreat on prime time Leno show
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC retreated on Sunday from its controversial bid to shake up prime time U.S. television, saying it was "going back to basics" with traditional dramas and comedies to try to rebuild audiences and its reputation.
Once mighty NBC, now at the bottom of the four leading U.S. networks, announced it was dropping "The Jay Leno Show" in February from its 10 p.m. lineup after just four months because of pressure from local affiliates.
NBC said it had given the go-ahead to pilots for six new scripted dramas and two new comedies for the 2010-2011 season starting in September. They include shows from Emmy-award winners David E. Kelley and Jerry Bruckheimer.
The network has struggled in recent years to find a break-out hit to replace 1990s crowd-pleasers like "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "ER" at a time when traditional TV is losing audiences to videogames and social networking sites.
"Right now, instead of trying to reinvent, we are going back to basics," NBC Universal television entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin told reporters.
"I almost don't care how quickly it happens, as long as it happens," Gaspin said of his goal to improve the network's lineup. "As long as I see an hour going up (in the ratings) instead of going to the side or down, I'll be happy."
Gaspin said Leno's comedy and talk show would cease airing in its 10 p.m. slot on February 12. He 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.
General Electric Co's NBC had spent months defending its decision to air "The Jay Leno Show" five nights a week, all year round, in the 10 p.m. hour traditionally seen by U.S. networks as the home of much more costly scripted drama.
Hollywood writers complained they were losing work and rival networks loaded their schedules with ratings busters like CBS Corp's "CSI" crime franchise and "Castle" on Walt Disney Co's ABC.
Although NBC said on Sunday it had made money despite the Leno show drawing a small audience of about 5.8 million, its local affiliates complained they had lost about 30 percent of the audiences for their newscasts immediately afterward.
Gaspin said some affiliates had even threatened to drop "The Jay Leno Show" altogether.
"This was not an issue for the network. It was an issue for the affiliates," Gaspin said.
"Financially, we were actually making money at 10 p.m.," he said. "For the network it was not yet a wrong decision."
Michael Fiorile, chairman of the NBC affiliate board, called the Leno switch "a great move for the affiliates, the network and, most importantly, the viewers."
Gaspin said the network hoped to have its new 10 p.m. lineup in place in early February. It will not go into effect until after NBC's coverage of the February 12-28 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
NBC said its green light for next season's pilots included an updated version of the 1970s detective show "The Rockford Files," a legal drama from "L.A. Law" creator Kelley called "Kindreds" and an action thriller called "Chase" from Bruckheimer, whose successes include the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
Asked how NBC could mend its reputation and convince viewers to return, prime time entertainment president Angela Bromstad told reporters: "I think the only way we can do that is to return some great quality shows to the schedule."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)