I Wouldn't Celebrate Just Yet

Conan O'Brien to Fox? Eh...

An executive at CBS decided to take a whack at NBC yesterday:

As NBC sifts its late-night lineup, competing networks are seizing on the reported Jay Leno drama. “[The Jay Leno Show] was an experiment and obviously it did not work,” Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment told reporters on Saturday.

She said Leno’s 10 p.m. comedy-talk show has helped CBS “get a bigger piece of the ad revenue pie at 10 p.m.” and ultimately “bruised” the creative community since the show does not employ the staffers required to make an expensive prime-time drama. “There’s no substitute for developing great shows, working with great talent and getting your program on the air,” Tassler said to television reporters gathered at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena for a bi-annual Television Critics Association conference.

An NBC spokeswoman declined to comment on Tassler’s remarks.

NBC is deciding what to do with its late-night lineup. While NBC executives say Leno’s 10 p.m. series is profitable, local NBC affiliates have complained that the program does not provide a strong lead in to their nightly news broadcasts, a key source of revenue for affiliates.

Miss Tassler is proud of what her network puts out these days? She's proud of the Letterman show, run by a man who can't keep his hands off of the hired help? She's proud of Two and a Half Men, featuring a man who has a history of beating up (and actually shooting) women and abusing drugs and alcohol? She's proud of a network that has the most ridiculous news department on television?

Say what you will about the demise of the Leno and O'Brien experiment, but at least those two gentlemen have been classy, up to this point. CBS doesn't really have much to brag on.

While all of this is going on, NBC continues to talk to Conan O'Brien. Will he bail and go to Fox? It comes down to a thing called infrastructure. Fox does not have as many affiliates and as many "lead in" opportunities, which is something that the big three networks have clung to. Note that the power behind this move comes because of things like this:

Mr. Gaspin said the 10 p.m. experiment with Mr. Leno was “working financially” for the network. But it was not working for NBC’s affiliate stations. Many of the stations saw the ratings for their 11 p.m. newscasts drop precipitously after “The Jay Leno Show” debuted last September.

“The audiences that were watching the show were smaller than we anticipated, and they were not staying for the late news,” said Michael Fiorile, the chairman of the NBC affiliates board.

In some cities — including Indianapolis, at Mr. Fiorile’s station, WTHR — the NBC stations that had been No. 1 in the ratings at 11 p.m. were suddenly No. 2 for the first time in many years.

“It was a problem at 10, it was a problem at 11, it was a problem at 11:35,” Mr. Fiorile said.

According to the Associated Press, “some affiliates told NBC in December they would go public soon about their complaints if a change wasn’t made, or even take Leno’s show off the air.”

That's where the power lies--with the affiliates and their influence over what the network puts on. That "infrastructure" of powerful affiliates is something that Fox doesn't really have. That might be a plus for O'Brien--he can go and not worry about that aspect of the business. Or it might kill that sort of talk--given that there's no money to be made, why turn your back on NBC? Why not go back to what you were doing and wait for someone to bring you a basket full of cash?