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NBC's Zucker Loves ... Is Committed to Conan ... Jay Leno

Yeah, everyone but me was at AllThingsD this week, so this time, I'm linking to Kara Swisher's interview with NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, who predicts an upfront that is going to be stronger than you previously believed! (By almost every accounting, by the way, that means it will still be down. Mediapost points to analyst reports that put the network end of the upfront market as being down by five to ten percent.)

Not surprisingly, Zucker is up with cable, which is exactly what you'd expect someone in his position to say, since his network is in last place, and his cable nets, which include USA and Bravo, are doing well. He also predicts that Hulu will break even "soon."

As I watch this, my favorite part of the interview is Zucker's convoluted explanation as to why the network decided to take Jay Leno out of the "Tonight Show" slot five years ago to put Conan O'Brien in his place -- a transition that starts tonight with Leno's last "Tonight Show" followed by O'Brien's first "Tonight Show" on Monday night. With the wisdom of these shifts as yet unclear, Zucker is still in the mode of having to bend over backwards to placate both parties (itals represent when, in my opinion, he kowtowed the most):

We made a decision five years ago that -- with Jay -- that Conan O'Brien was going to take over "The Tonight Show" ... so five years in the making, this transition happens tomorrow night and Monday night. ... Jay decided that he actually didn't want to retire, didn't want to just do the comedy circuit, wanted to stay, and frankly he's the most popular personality in primetime tele ... in television today. ... We didn't want to lose him. We didn't want to see him ... We were commited to Conan ... We didn't want to see him walk across the street and go somewhere else, so we had to figure out a way to keep a person of Jay's stature and caliber..so, we were committed to Conan at 11:30 and we wanted to keep Jay, so we had to figure that out. ...it was a confluence of events.
When Swisher asks about the cost issue, he doesn't deny it, but of the three drivers determining whether moving Leno to 10 was a good idea, it came in at No. 3. That said, even though I've had some fun at Zucker's expense with this post, I've a feeling this whole gambit is going to work, if for no other reason than that Leno's show will be cheap to produce.

But there are other reasons. For one, a lot of people aren't all that interested in trying out new series, and Leno is comfortable, a habit, that viewers can now tuck into like an early-bird special of comedy. Second, though I'm not sure that O'Brien will pull in as many viewers as Leno, he'll probably still beat Letterman. Letterman is great, but there's no news there; O'Brien will bring it to "The Tonight Show." The only thing I would quibble with is the timing of Leno's debut; seems a better idea to start him off in the sumemr, with no new series or fresh episodes of old series to compete with, so that by the time those series launch in September, Leno is well-established.

By the way, if you're as fascinated by the Leno/O'Brien story as I am, the one must-read (other than this blog) is the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story that ran last week.

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