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Why NBC had to pull the plug on prime-time Leno

Trying to undo one of the most spectacular programming failures in TV history, NBC is canceling Jay Leno's prime-time show effective Feb. 12 with the arrival of Winter Olympics programming.

Mounting pressure from affiliates like WBAL-TV in Baltimore was the driving force behind the move. Local stations across the country saw their profits plummet as the veteran comedian's lead-in dragged down late news ratings. Losing more than half of its 11 p.m. audience, WBAL — a long-time market leader — was one of the stations hit hardest by what came to be known as the "Leno effect."

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The discontent had reached the point in recent weeks where station groups like Hearst Television Inc., which owns WBAL, were threatening to move late newscasts on their stations up to 10 p.m. — while shifting Leno back to 11 on their own.

Such an unprecedented move of affiliate insurrection would have wreaked havoc on NBC's ability to sell ads nationally during the 10 p.m. hour. And that was the idea: to make NBC share some of the tremendous financial pain that Leno was causing the affiliates and their corporate owners.

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NBC hopes to move Leno back to a half hour show in his old time period at 11:35 p.m., starting March 1 after the Olympics. "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" would slide back to 12:05 a.m., followed by "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" at 1:05. But the network has yet to finalize the changes with Leno, O'Brien and Fallon.

NBC Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin acknowledged Sunday at a news conference in Los Angeles that the Leno show "did not meet our affiliates needs."

And the affiliates quickly expressed relief at not having to head into February sweeps saddled with a prime-time Leno show.

"I think the network is being responsive to the requests of the affiliates, who are greatly appreciative of all the work Jay Leno has done," said Jordan Wertlieb, a member of the NBC Affiliates Board and general manager of WBAL-TV. "But, unfortunately, the show was not providing a sufficient lead-in to our late news."

Commenting on the affiliate' threat to pre-empt Leno, NBC's Gaspin said, "This was not going to go well if that was the case." The NBC chairman admitted that the lost revenue to groups like Hearst "forces them to force our hand."

University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery put losses to WBAL and Hearst in the "millions of dollars."

For decades, the story of the late news in Baltimore was one of a back-and-forth struggle between WBAL and WJZ for leadership. In the post-Leno era, WJZ — which shares content with The Sun — has become firmly established in first place in late news. The CBS-owned station has doubled WBAL's audience in the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54 years of age.

WBAL, meanwhile, lost 54 percent of that audience year to year. As the ratings situation worsened, Leno personally tired to reassure station managers like Wertlieb and even incorporated special Baltimore segments and references into his show.

But the trouble was not limited to 11 p.m hour. At 10 p.m. this fall, not only did Leno get beat by prime-time entertainment programming on the other network-owned and affiliated stations in Baltimore, WBFF Fox-45 beat Leno with its 10 p.m. newscast. This fall, WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate in Baltimore, had a bigger audience at 10 p.m. for its news than WBAL did for its news at 11.

And Leno's failure set off a domino effect, hurting not only the ratings of late local newscasts, but also the ratings for "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night."

"This is one of the worst programming blunders in the history of network history," Gomery said.

And the trouble is not over. Sunday's move only keeps affiliates from revolting now.

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NBC still has the problem of ego, salaries and its late night lineup to sort out. While Leno has agreed to the move, O'Brien whose contract could be voided by the change, has a significant amount of leverage. Fox has hinted that the network would consider hiring O'Brien because of his ability to draw a younger audience.

"As much as I'd like to tell you we have a done deal, the talks are still going on," Gaspin said.

And it remains to be seen whether WBAL will be able to regain its market share at 11 with Leno gone. It will not be easy given that NBC will be scrambling to fill the time period at first, but WBAL does have a strong news product and good ratings for its other newscasts as a solid base to build on.

The Olympics also gives the network two weeks in February to stockpile extra episodes of its most successful series, like "30 Rock," which the network can then double-run until the programming pipeline can start producing.

NBC also has the newsmagazine "Dateline," which has been used in the past to fill gaps caused by quick cancellations — and a newsmagazine even if it doesn't get great ratings is a highly compatible lead-in to the late news.

NBC has the ever-ready Dick Wolf as a producing partner, and Wolf can churn out episodes of his "Law & Order" franchises at phenomenal speed. Analysts like Gomery predict viewers will be seeing lots of "Law & Order S.V.U" this spring.

The network has already moved "The Marriage Ref," a new reality-comedy series produced by Jerry Seinfeld up from its planned March 14 debut date to a showcase Feb. 28 after the Olympics. The series takes a disagreement between a real-life married couple and then submits to a panel of comedy experts who debate the issues before a "the marriage ref" decides the matter. The subject makes it compatible with a 10 p.m. adult audience, and NBC has extra episodes on hand.

None of that is a great and permanent solution. But as far as the affiliates are concerned, anything is better than Leno.

"It won't be great, but NBC will be able to fill with shows that will do better than Leno," Gomery said. "It's like New Coke. Sure, throwing out the old formula for Coke and going to something that was supposed to be great and new was an absolute disaster. But people are still drinking Coke. And if they have something viewers want, people will still watch NBC." Wire services contributed to this article.

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