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After Leno debacle, Conan should skip out on NBC

When NBC announced early last year that it would retain Jay Leno for a prime-time show after he left The Tonight Show, his successor, Conan O'Brien, did the only thing he could: congratulate his predecessor on his new deal.

But O'Brien had to sense trouble, and now he has it.

When Leno got The Tonight Show desk after Johnny Carson's retirement in 1992, he had bigger shoes to fill than O'Brien did, but he didn't have Carson still hanging around. Leno, on the other hand, was signed by NBC to start a 10 p.m. talk show that was supposed to revolutionize prime-time network broadcasting.

It didn't.

In fact, its low ratings were driving the late-evening newscasts of NBC affiliates into a ditch. (In Lexington, NBC affiliate WLEX says it has not experienced a "Leno effect," but other NBC stations have seen audiences and ad revenue dive.)

So on Sunday, NBC announced what probably was some form of O'Brien's greatest fear: The Jay Leno Show, the 10 p.m. talker, has been canceled, and Leno will get a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m., his old time slot. Under this plan, O'Brien's Tonight Show would start five minutes into the next day.

NBC is running scared, trying to keep all the talent it has under contract while demonstrating that it doesn't have a clue what to do with it. In the process, the Peacock Network could destroy The Tonight Show, one of the most enduring franchises in television.

Remember, this all started with fear five years ago. NBC got scared that O'Brien, then host of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, which followed Tonight, was flirting with other networks. So, thinking that Leno, then 54, was probably getting near retirement, NBC promised O'Brien The Tonight Show in five years.

It seemed as if the network was trying to avoid a mistake that many people thought it made in the early 1990s, when it passed over original Late Night host David Letterman and hired Leno for Carson's chair. Letterman was angry and bolted for CBS, where he launched The Late Show With David Letterman, which is now well into its second decade and is pummeling O'Brien's Tonight Show.

That is the weak part of pro-O'Brien arguments. He is losing to Letterman, posting about half the audience that Leno's Tonight Show attracted when it routinely beat Letterman.

But you also can argue that O'Brien's Tonight Show suffered from the lousy lead-in of Leno, and Leno himself took more than a year to get The Tonight Show back to the top of the late-night heap when he took over. And does NBC really retain Leno, who will be 60 in April, with any sense of the long-term future? The network isn't even thinking about the short-term future.

Consider: Leno failed to capture a large-enough audience to stay on the air at 10 p.m. with a show that was essentially a retread of The Tonight Show. So now, having shown no creativity in coming up with something that was planned for nearly a year, Leno is supposed to come up with some 30- minute thing in the seven weeks between now and the end of the Winter Olympics, when his new show will debut? Good luck with that.

One can't help but think this is a plan to make the once-indispensable O'Brien walk, and if he gets the opportunity, he should.

Yes, in getting The Tonight Show he was handed the premiere late-night talk-show franchise. But unless NBC retreats from this plan quickly, Tonight is damaged goods. O'Brien reportedly is being courted by other networks, and going to a rival network could give him a fresh start without the constraints that Tonight put on him, primarily moving him to California. At Fox, mentioned as his primary suitor, O'Brien could follow many popular 10 p.m. newscasts, such as the one on WDKY (Channel 56) in Lexington, and start 35 minutes earlier than Leno or Letterman. Maybe they'd also let him move the franchise back to New York, where he seemed much more comfortable.

The biggest argument for O'Brien to walk is that NBC is looking inept in all this, and who wants to be part of that if there are better opportunities? O'Brien himself joked Friday night that the network was going to make him and Leno fight and that the loser had to stay at NBC.

Years ago, NBC slipped into fourth place in prime-time ratings but could claim dominance in late night, with Leno and O'Brien, and in the mornings.

If I were at the Today show, I'd be worried. After NBC executives screw up prime time and late night, there's only one thing left.