Jay Leno exiting primetime

9:32 AM PST 01/10/2010 by James Hibberd, AP

NBC planning to put scripted programming back at 10 p.m.

It's official: NBC is booting Jay Leno from primetime.

NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin confirmed Sunday to reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena that the network is going "back to basics" -- scripted programming at 10 p.m., talk shows in late-night and a traditional network upfront in May.

"I can confirm that starting Feb. 12, Jay Leno will no longer air at 10 p.m.," Gaspin told the packed auditorium. "While it was performing at acceptable levels, it did not meet our affiliates' needs. My goal right now is to keep Jay (Leno), Conan (O'Brien) and Jimmy (Fallon) as part of our late-night lineup. As much as I'd like to tell you we have a done deal, we know that's not true."

NBC has asked Leno to move to 11:35 p.m. as a half-hour show, followed by O'Brien's hourlong "Tonight Show" and Fallon's one-hour "Late Night." Leno is expected to agree to the change, though it's unclear if O'Brien is willing to stay with the network. One way or another, Gaspin said he expects the network will have a new schedule in place before the Olympics begin next month.

"I can't imagine we won't have everything in place before then," he said.

Gaspin was uncertain at this juncture what will air instead of "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. but estimated in the short term there will be "two hours of scripted, another reality hour and combination of 'Dateline' or repeats."

When asked why NBC abandoned its 52-week strategy with Leno, giving him a year to settle into primetime before making any decisions, Gaspin pointed to affiliate concerns.

"I would have liked nothing more than to give this a 52-week try," Gaspin said. "Affiliates started calling, saying local news was being impacted more than expected. In some cases, they had the No. 1 news show, and now they were No. 3."

After affiliates began to informally threaten to pre-empt the telecast due to slacking ratings for their local newscasts, their displeasure was going to become "a PR issue" for the network and Gaspin said he felt compelled to act quickly.

"This was not an issue for the network; it was an issue for our affiliates," he said. "We were making money at 10 p.m. I think over time (Leno show ratings) might have started to grow. For the network, it was not yet a wrong decision."

The proposed shift wasn't an easy decision -- or an easy sell to NBC Uni president and CEO Jeff Zucker. Gaspin said he decided before the December holiday break that he needed to make a change. He had multiple conversations with Zucker, explaining in each why every other possibility (such as scaling back Leno to fewer nights) wasn't going to work.

"I did an analysis of all the possible changes I could make," Gaspin said. "(I told him) this was our best choice and probably our only choice."

Pressed on whether "Leno Show" was a mistake, Gaspin said, "I don't think its wrong to take chances. We might have been too early on this one."

Even while pledging to return to a more traditional network model, Gaspin expressed some skepticism about whether 10 p.m. is truly viable for scripted programming. He noted that "Leno Show" lost NBC nine-tenths of a rating point this fall, yet competitors ABC and CBS, which largely stayed with drama series in the hour, likewise lost a tenth of a point each.

"I handed them nine-tenths of a rating point each, and they each lost a tenth," Gaspin said. "Tell me there's not a problem with 10 p.m. on broadcast."

Leno, O'Brien and Fallon, Gaspin said, were "incredibly gracious and professional" when told the news.

"I made the tough call," Gaspin said. "They all understood the situation I was in. ... Beyond that, it was a private conversation."

The hosts have the weekend to think about the proposed changes. "Last Call" host Carson Daly, however, might be the odd man out, with Gaspin saying only that Daly would "remain part of the NBC family."

On the programming side, Gaspin confirmed the pickup of several pilots and announced that the network is developing a Los Angeles-based "Law & Order," which was jokingly dubbed "LOLA." He announced that Howie Mandel would take over for David Hasselhoff as a judge on "America's Got Talent." NBC will air a preview of Jerry Seinfeld's new reality series "The Marriage Ref" after the Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony -- a network first.

After experimenting with an April "infront" for the past two years, the network will return to a traditional upfront presentation on May 17, giving its programrs more time to produce a crop a pilots.

"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 instead of going to the side or down, I'll be happy. ... In some cases, going back to basics is the smartest play."

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.
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