PASADENA, Calif. — The failed Jay Leno experiment was great for business — at CBS.
CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler said Saturday her network took in more advertising revenue for its 10 p.m. dramas because NBC decided to put Leno's comedy show on at that hour five nights a week. NBC is considering moving Leno back to late-night TV because its affiliates are upset that the show's low prime-time ratings are hurting late local news programs.
"10 o'clock is a great business for us," Tassler said. "The unfortunate thing is that our creative community was to some degree somewhat bruised by this ... A lot of people were put out of work. A lot of people really saw this as having a negative effect on our business."
Hollywood actors, writers and producers had been upset about Leno's show from the beginning, seeing it as taking away from prime-time hours usually filled by scripted shows.
Tassler said that NBC keeps seeming to come up with new prime-time strategies to deal with its ratings troubles when "there's no substitute for just developing and producing and launching great shows."
While NBC is still unsure what its late-night lineup will be, Tassler said CBS is close to signing deals that will keep David Letterman and Craig Ferguson in place through mid-2012.
NBC sends its executives to meet with journalists in Pasadena on Sunday, but it's still not clear if they'll have anything to announce. Under a scenario that would bring Leno back to late-night, the Conan O'Brien-hosted "Tonight" show would move back a half hour, and it's not known whether he'll accept that.
He might find a warm welcome waiting for him at Fox.
Fox respects O'Brien's talent and sees him as a good fit, a person at the network said Friday. The person, who lacked authority to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Fox was watching to see how the situation played out but that O'Brien remained under contract with NBC.
Representatives for O'Brien did not immediately respond to requests for comment about his plans.
ABC, for its part, indicated a lack of interest if O'Brien becomes a free agent.
"With all due respect to Conan, we like the late night hand that we are currently playing," the network, home of "Nightline" in the late-night slot, said in a statement Friday.
Many NBC affiliates have complained that viewership for their 11 p.m. newscasts have plummeted because Leno's 10 p.m. show is such a weak lead-in.
"I think Jay Leno's a great performer. He's just at the wrong place at the wrong time. There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. There is something wrong with not correcting them," said Bob Prather, president and chief operating officer at Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc., whose station group includes 10 NBC affiliates.
Lisa Howfield, general manager of NBC affiliate KVBC in Las Vegas, said Friday: "I'm excited to have Jay land back in late night. It sounds like a great lineup."
O'Brien, who left jokes about the situation to Leno on Thursday, didn't hold back Friday on "Tonight."
"We've got a great show for you tonight. I have no idea what time it will air — but it's going to be a great show," O'Brien said in his monologue.
O'Brien added later that he wanted to address rumors swirling about his show and Leno's, including one that "NBC is going to throw me and Jay in a pit with sharpened sticks. The one who crawls out gets to leave NBC."
Leno also focused on the proposal Friday.
"To be fair, NBC is working on a solution, they say, in which all parties" will be treated unfairly, he quipped in the monologue. "That certain NBC touch."
NBC's contract with O'Brien reportedly allows the network to move "Tonight" to 12:05 a.m. EST but no later, at the risk of substantial financial penalties. With a two-year contract said to be valued at about $28 million per year, O'Brien would have to think hard about walking away.
Leno's show has averaged 5.8 million nightly viewers since its fall debut, about the same number who watched his final "Tonight" season. By comparison, the season's top-rated 10 p.m. network drama, CBS' "The Mentalist," has an average audience of 17.5 million.
O'Brien is averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers, compared with 4.2 for Letterman's "Late Show," according to Nielsen figures. And the younger audience that O'Brien was expected to woo has been largely unimpressed, with O'Brien and Letterman's shows tying among advertiser-favored viewers ages 18 to 49.
Any change would probably not take effect until March, after the Winter Olympics on NBC.
AP Television Writers Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.
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