NBC Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin told EW.com that he expects Jay Leno “will be competitive” when he returns to The Tonight Show on March 1 and — despite the wave of pro-Conan O’Brien sentiment — that he will not have trouble luring stars to his old stomping grounds. (NBC just announced today that O’Brien will leave the franchise tomorrow and Leno will take back the hosting gig he previously held from May 1992 to May of last year.) “Jay has been booking guests for 18 years, and while there might be a guest or two who favors Conan who doesn’t want to come on, there are also guests who Leno has that don’t like to go on Conan,” said Gaspin. “I think we will be fine.”
Gaspin is equally as optimistic about the challenge of convincing viewers to return to the franchise now that Leno is back. Up until O’Brien took over the show, The Tonight Show under Leno consistently dominated the 11:30 p.m. time slot and was a cash cow for NBC. “I think we will take a slightly different tack than when we were announcing The Jay Leno Show at 10,” explains Gaspin of the new marketing plans. “I suspect we’ll do it with some humor and a wink, not a sledgehammer. We will certainly be more subtle. Fortunately, the positive side of this public battle is that everybody knows what is going on, so you don’t have to create awareness. All we have to do is gently remind people when it starts. We’ll have the Olympics as a platform to let people know that Jay will be back on The Tonight Show starting March 1.”
As for NBC’s agreement to let O’Brien seek employment as early as September, Gaspin wouldn’t comment, but an insider close to the negotiations said the network ultimately compromised because it was eager to wrap up the contentious negotiations. The source says it was the language in the deal that slowed the process, not the actual deal terms, which included O’Brien walking away with a cash settlement of more than $30 million, and his staff receiving severance as well. His last day on NBC is Jan. 22.
For at least next week, reruns of The Tonight Show with O’Brien will air at 11:30 p.m.