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Mr. TV: TCA's Winter Heat

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Live from sunny Pasadena, it’s the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour. Clearly this year’s event had more action than I’ve ever seen, thanks mainly to NBC’s late-night shenanigans. So let’s start there.

While I hate to begin with “I told you so,” I knew (and so did you, I’m certain) that five nights per week of The Jay Leno Show in place of scripted programming was a suicide mission.
Only the NBC suits didn’t seem to realize what kind of negative impact this could have in both prime time and late night. When you program a network, there is a common rule: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And there was no reason to tamper with late night. But NBC has messed around so many times in the last two days, setting off all sorts of fireworks with each next move, the entire industry’s heads are spinning.

Here’s the latest: An angry Conan O’Brien is expected to exit NBC this Friday, after having his show pushed back to 12:05, causing him to publicly balk. And Leno is expected to inherit back The Tonight Show after the Winter Olympics. As rumored, NBC Universal honcho Jeff Zucker (who we all know is responsible for this mess) got bent out of shape and threatened to keep Conan off the air for three-and-a-half years. But now Conan could be free to head to Fox, which is apparently open to conversations, given its comments at the Press Tour.

If all goes as planned, younger-skewing, niche-driven Conan will find a more appropriate home on Fox (or elsewhere, perhaps). Leno heads back to where he belongs, and Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly remain intact too. As for Zucker, who I think has made a career failing upwards, he should be shown the door after spearheading what could be referred to as the biggest blunder in the history of programming. While putting Leno back on Tonight now makes the most sense, there is no reason to believe the initial ratings results will equal one year earlier—Leno is damaged goods now.

The new rotation of 10 p.m. weeknight shows in place of Leno effective the first week of March (after the Olympics) are Law & Order (Monday), Parenthood (Tuesday), Law & Order: SVU (Wednesday), The Marriage Ref (Thursday) and an expanded edition of Dateline on Friday. Now that NBC realizes the value of scripted programming, it promises to be aggressive next season. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Courtesy of Simon Cowell, Fox had its own drama unfold at the Press Tour. Cowell interrupted Fox’s network session to announce he was leaving American Idol at the end of the season to bring hit British reality/competition The X Factor to the States next fall. No matter how you cut it, Idol without Simon will be in serious trouble.

The most controversial note hit at the CBS session was Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen’s recent arrest for domestic abuse. Don’t fret, however, because this kind of scandal only gives the star’s show added publicity. Otherwise, it was a feel-good day for a network that should be truly proud of its ongoing success. On the tail end of CBS’ day was corporate cousin The CW, which didn’t even have an executive session. Hmmm…is that telling us something?

Chintzy ABC started on a sour note since it didn’t have an event planned for the evening. Most interesting was the opening panel with the cast of Lost, who waxed nostalgic.

Wondering how it will end? “If you watched the first season of the show, that’s probably the most important thing leading into the final season,” explained executive producer Carlton Cuse. “We will go back to our roots and explore why this group of strangers landed on this strange island together.” There wasn’t much else to report from ABC other than second-season renewals for freshmen Wednesday sitcoms Modern Family, The Middle and Cougar Town.

I guess there is something to be said for programming wisely—and without too much drama. NBC could learn a thing or two from its competitors.