Q&A: Jeff Gaspin

NBC Uni entertainment chairman talks late-night

With Conan O'Brien departing NBC and Jay Leno resuming control of "The Tonight Show," NBC Universal TV entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the shake-up and what happens next.

The Hollywood Reporter: What is Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" going to be like -- his previous "Tonight" or "The Jay Leno Show"? Will he still have his contributors? The race track?

Jeff Gaspin: (Executive producer) Debbie Vickers and Jay are working on that now. My guess is it will be a hybrid. They're going to make some alterations to the studio to make it more intimate. There's elements of the current show they like, and there's elements from "The Tonight Show" they'd like to bring back. I would be surprised if they didn't bring back the desk and a couch, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a new desk and couch.

THR: Are you concerned that Leno's popularity may have suffered? Do you expect him to pull the same numbers on "Tonight" that he had before all this?

Gaspin I think Leno will be competitive at 11:35 p.m., I think his fan base is very strong and they will welcome him back. I don't think they're paying nearly as much attention to what's going on as we are.

THR: You tried to keep both, but you had to make a choice between keeping Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. What makes Leno the better fit for NBC?

Gaspin I did want to keep both. But if you look at the business of it as a practical matter, when I knew I was going to have to make a change at 10 p.m., I looked at the facts. "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" was (anticipated) to lose many millions of dollars at 11:35 p.m. If you looked at the ratings, affiliates were down 14%, "The Tonight Show" was down 49% -- this is year-to-year for full fourth quarter. As a practical matter, it made sense to try and come up with some other formula for late-night.

THR: Is there a lesson to be learned by all this?

Gaspin There's always lessons to be learned, whether you do things right or wrong. Based on the information I was working with, I came up with a fair and responsible compromise. I wanted to keep both, maybe I was too optimistic.

THR: What do you think about Conan's ratings climbing right as he's going out the door? Is it just sentiment and buzz, or is it a little worrisome?

Gaspin I would look at David Letterman's ratings currently. He had a huge pop during his scandal. If you look at his ratings now, they're below where they were before his scandal.

THR: It seems like you can't turn on the TV without hearing an NBC joke. Branding-wise, how do you bounce back from that?

Gaspin I think those jokes are waning very quickly. You're actually seeing backlash against those jokes on air. People are saying, "We have a horrendous situation in Haiti, let's put this thing in perspective." Controversies and scandals burn red hot for a short period of time. And then they are extinguished. I expect the same thing will happen here.

THR: You guys raised Conan. Now his profile's gone up, his ratings are up, you've given him a bunch of money, and now he's going into the marketplace. What are your feelings about what's transpired here?

Gaspin That is just the cost of doing business in television and film. This is one of the Shakespearean story lines that happen over and over in television.