NBC seeks to repair Leno damage

NBC Universal chief executive officer Jeffrey Zucker's next step, having decided to yank Jay Leno's 9 p.m. talk show, is to fix the damage done to the network's prime-time viewership by the four-month experiment.

Executives at the network, last among U.S. broadcasters in prime time, began meeting Monday on how to fill the five-hour-a-week hole left by Leno, said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.

Gaspin outlined his ideas.

"There will probably be two scripted hours, another reality show, 'Dateline' or some re-runs," Gaspin said, referring to the news magazine "Dateline NBC."

NBC lost 4.6 percent of its prime-time viewers since Leno began airing at 9 p.m. weeknights, replacing more expensive scripted dramas. The move, starting in September, helped CBS Corp. increase its advertising share, Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, said Saturday.

The switch also provided lower audiences for NBC local TV news and late-night programs.

The network will return to a traditional prime-time lineup and is developing the most pilots since 2003.

"They said, 'mea culpa,' and they're trying to fix it," Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co., said in an interview. "It's better than if they decided to stay the course just because they don't want to admit defeat."

NBC will stop broadcasting "The Jay Leno Show" at 9 p.m. next month, Gaspin said Sunday. Leno is working on a 30-minute show that would return him to his former 10:35 p.m. starting time after a hiatus for the Vancouver Olympics, which run Feb. 12-28, Gaspin said.

The move would push "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" a half-hour later, to 11:05 a.m., and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" would start at 12:05 a.m.

Eliminating Leno from the prime-time lineup leaves the 9 p.m. slot open on weeknights.

"Dateline NBC" has become a solid ratings performer in earlier slots at 8 p.m. on Fridays and 6 to 8 p.m. on Sundays, Gaspin said. He didn't rule out moving or expanding reality show "The Biggest Loser," now running for two hours on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., into the 9 p.m. slot.

NBC must still resolve the late-night lineup. The hosts haven't agreed to the changes and were given the weekend to mull them over before further discussions this week, Gaspin said.

Gaspin said he hopes O'Brien will stay with NBC. News Corp.' s Fox and other TV networks have expressed interest in the "Tonight Show" host, people with knowledge of the talks said last week.

ABC doesn't plan to pursue O'Brien, a spokesman for Burbank, Calif.-based Walt Disney Co.' s broadcast network said on Jan. 8.

CBS is "very close" to renewing contracts with David Letterman and Craig Ferguson that will keep the late-night hosts "deep into 2012," Tassler said Saturday.

The decision to move Leno to prime time was made when Ben Silverman was co-chairman of NBC under Zucker. Silverman left the network in September. Angela Bromstad was made president of prime-time programming in December 2008, and Gaspin was handed oversight of the broadcast network in July.