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Staring into the abyss at the floundering NBC TV network

Winter brings bad weather to large swaths of the country, but it also brings a gathering of TV critics for a press tour in Pasadena, Calif., where the sunshine is far more appealing than network TV programming.


Well, at least, that’s the case for NBC, whose sagging fortunes seem only to get worse with every passing day.


Only last summer, Jay Leno handed over the reins of “The Tonight Show” to Conan O’Brien, and the veteran late night host became NBC’s grand experiment to create “The Jay Leno Show” in a 10 p.m. time slot for five nights a week during the fall season.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you now know how well that strategy played out.


Speaking to a packed room of TV critics and other media types, Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, confirmed what everyone already knew, namely that Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show would vanish from the airwaves the day before the start of the Vancouver Olympics.


In a matter-of-fact tone, Gaspin said of the failed Leno show experiment that “while it was performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliates’ needs and we realized we had to make a change.”


The translation of this network-speak is that NBC was actually making money on the reduced costs of producing a nightly talk show, but affiliate stations around the country were taking a financial beating as their 11 p.m. local news slots often slipped into last place.


The grand NBC plan was then to move Jay Leno back into the late-night lineup with his own show at 11:35 p.m., while “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” moves to 12:05 a.m. and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” starts at 1:05 a.m. No one knows what will happen to “Last Call with Carson Daly,” but my guess is that he will soon be relegated to Las Vegas lounge acts after 2 a.m.


But then, Gaspin acknowledged that the network doesn’t have a “done deal” on this arrangement, and within 48 hours Team Conan was putting out statements that the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting is going down in flames.


I rarely, if ever, quote the work of other critics, but Marc Berman of Mediaweek’s Programming Insider has some astute observations.


He calls NBC’s decision to have had Jay Leno with his own talk show at 10 p.m. “arguably the biggest fiasco in the history of television.” Then he goes on to point out that “what no one at NBC seems to realize is since Leno flopped at 10 p.m., a half-hour version is unlikely to fare any better at 11:35 p.m.”


To me, it seemed like NBC was making a Solomon-like decision to split the baby, and yet it may never find the appropriate business model.


Then came word that O'Brien is planning to leave the network, with NBC now looking to put Leno back behind “The Tonight Show” desk.


With the sudden need to program the 10 p.m. time period Monday through Friday, Gaspin can only guess that the network will come up with two more hours of scripted shows, possibly another reality hour, and then a combination of either an expanded “Dateline” or repeats somewhere else in the schedule.


Soon, it will be open season for producers from David E. Kelley to Jerry Bruckheimer pitching new programs. Actually, the talent search is already under way, as NBC announced a slew of projects getting the green light.


Master of the action-procedural drama, Jerry Bruckheimer delivers more of the same with “Chase,” a drama set in the American Southwest, where a crucial fugitive apprehension team comprised of U.S. Marshals tracks down the nation’s most notorious criminals. Tension builds as the cat-and-mouse game of the ultimate search escalates in each episode.


Meanwhile, David E. Kelley’s “Kindreds” follows a curmudgeonly ex-patent lawyer and his group of misfit associates as their lives come together to form an unconventional kind of law practice. Having already created “Boston Legal” and “L.A. Law,” Kelley obviously has a thing for legal dramas.


As if it doesn’t have enough drama of its own, NBC is looking ahead to a slew of even more dramatic series. Based on a BBC series, “Prime Suspect” centers on a courageous female detective who investigates complex mysteries in a politically explosive big city.


“Undercovers” features a husband and wife team coming out of retirement and being reactivated as CIA agents. A thriller with a unique storytelling device, “The Event” features multiple points of view concerning a decent, regular fellow battling against mysterious circumstances within a larger conspiracy.


NBC also wants to revive the 1970s private eye drama “The Rockford Files,” but I can’t see anyone other than James Garner as the right fit.


On a more immediate note, NBC has great plans to launch a Jerry Seinfeld production called “The Marriage Ref.” Unfortunately, the acclaimed comedian is working only behind the scenes to deliver what he calls “a comedy about situations in reality.”


For a show getting a sneak preview after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, “The Marriage Ref” will put real-life married couples on the spot to have their disputes resolved by comedian Tom Papa serving in the titular role.


The concept of “The Marriage Ref” is to dwell on marital tiffs of a less serious nature, running the gamut of quirky, funny and relatable disagreements which seemingly pose no immediate threat to a bickering couple.


Like a sporting event, the couples set forth their case and will be given a call by the ref. Advising and influencing the ref’s decision will be a panel of so-called experts, comprised of top celebrities, comedians and sports stars who will weigh in and offer their own wit, wisdom and unique opinions. Among these “experts” will be Charles Barkley and Alec Baldwin, and so it is clear there will be nothing serious about this program.


NBC may have some luck with the fortuitous timing of the Winter Olympics. With Canada in the same time zones as the United States, prime time programming is not an issue, and NBC has the services of congenial Bob Costas as the prime time host, while Al Michaels performs similar duties in the daytime.


NBC will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Lake Placid games, when the U.S. Hockey team improbably beat the Russians and Al Michaels delivered the memorable line: “Do you believe in miracles?”


We know a network that is hoping for a miracle of its own.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

 

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