Returning to a quip he’s made before, Jay Leno on Thursday night told his audience that NBC stands for “Never Believe Your Contract.” (Scroll down for the video clip.)
Further, in the wake of rumors that his future was being reconsidered by the network, he added, “If we did get canceled, it will give us time to do some traveling. I understand that Fox is beautiful this time of year.”
On Thursday, speculation swirled following a post on FTLive.com claiming that NBC was “pulling the plug” on Leno’s primetime show and TMZ’s subsequent story that said a time-shift scenario was in the offing. (This scenario, according to reports, would see Leno move to 11:35 p.m. for a half-hour program, with O’Brien and Fallon shifting back a half hour to 12:05 a.m. and 1:05 a.m., respectively).
NBC then issued two statements, one denying that Leno was canceled but acknowledging that “it has presented some issues for our affiliates” and the other stating that the network brass “remain committed to keeping Conan O’Brien on NBC.”
The Wrap notes that NBC executives are worried that a significant number of local stations could start bailing on The Jay Leno Show as early as this spring.
NBC has been preparing backup plans for months now, insiders told TW, which include Leno at 8, Leno at 11, O’Brien at 12:05 a.m….
The New York Times reports that NBC executives held extensive discussions with both Leno and O’Brien on Thursday. One senior executive said that the moves were still being thrashed out by the representatives of each of the stars, but that an agreement was essentially in place.
Insiders, according to Variety, were confirming late Thursday that Leno had been offered — and had accepted — a return to the 11:35 p.m. time slot. In this scenario, O’Brien would retain the Tonight Show name.
Deadline Hollywood cites a source who says, “Conan hasn’t agreed to anything yet, especially not to push back to 12:05 a.m.” NBC has the contractual right to start The Tonight Show as late as 12:05 a.m., which it sometimes does for sports or news, Deadline explains.
But will O’Brien accept a demotion to 12 a.m. and stay on NBC, or leave for another network, thereby breaking his lucrative contract?
The exact terms of O’Brien’s contract are not known, but he is rumored to have built into the deal he made five years ago that he would host The Tonight Show or NBC would owe a penalty of as much as $45 million.
If his show continues to be called The Tonight Show, NBC may not be in breach.
However, Broadcasting & Cable reports that NBC has the option to bench O’Brien for the remainder of his contract but keep paying him.
O’Brien, who was given the Tonight gig in 2004 before moving his entire life out to LA from New York this past summer to start the job, has to be weighing his options at this point. His handlers are likely mulling different possibilities including pitching their client to both Fox and ABC. But neither network appears immediately likely to make a play for O’Brien, insiders told Variety.
A move to Fox would be tricky. The network has considered getting back in the late-night game but its O&Os and affiliates do fine with off-net syndicated fare in those hours.
NBC is likely hoping that O’Brien will realize there are few other options in late night: He’d still have the Tonight Show franchise, and he’d still air a half hour earlier than he did on Late Night.
His best move may be to sit tight, The Los Angeles Times suggests. Fox was interested in him years ago, but a senior executive there indicated that may not be the case anymore. Plus, Leno can’t go on forever, can he?
Ultimately, if the time-shift scenario does come to pass, NBC will have to fill prime-time hours very quickly. As Bloomberg reported at the end of the year, the network has plans to order 18 pilots for the fall season (many more than any other in recent memory), but the new series would not be ready before summer.
This weekend, both NBC Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin and prime-time entertainment president Angela Bromstad will appear at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, where Leno questions are sure to be at the fore. Further, NBC is coming up against its Jan. 21 affiliate meeting, where it would face disgruntled station owners whose local newscasts have been hit hard by an anemic Leno lead-in.
Any change on Leno would represent an embarrassing about-face after NBC’s numerous public statements pledging to give Leno months, even years, to grow into the slot; the network always emphasized that the show was a 52-week strategy, as The Hollywood Reporter, among many others, notes.
Meanwhile, NBC is also in the throes of being acquired by Comcast, and the Leno shuffle could represent a blow to NBC’s executive leadership — especially since Leno impacted the network precisely as industry experts predicted and performed in its time period just as network execs repeatedly claimed that they anticipated.
A person close to NBC Universal said Comcast isn’t involved in any way in Leno deliberations, The Wall Street Journal notes, and that the timing of the discussions and Comcast’s agreement to buy control of NBC Universal is a coincidence.
The revised lineup would go into effect after NBC concludes its coverage of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 28.