Stop me if you've heard this one before, but it's official: NBC will be royally fucking over the most vital comedic talent currently on its payroll to make sure Jay Leno stays happy and, more importantly, stays put.
It's honestly staggering what the network is doing; when you stop and actually consider the Clash of the Titans-like machinations that have played out over the past few years at NBC, seemingly at the frivolous whim of the bored-petty-playful gods who run the place like the airwaves are their own personal social experiment, it boggles the mind. NBC inexplicably pushed Leno out of The Tonight Show while he was #1, gave the show to Conan O'Brien to keep him from jumping ship, effectively suffocated its prime time lineup and pissed off every affiliate on the map when Leno decided that the ego-bruising he took shouldn't go unanswered and threatened to take his top-rated milquetoast act to the competition, and now, it's going to essentially turn around and take The Tonight Show show back from Conan and give it to Leno for a half-hour, either officially or unofficially, and once again push Conan past midnight.
While at first glance it really does seem like the NBC suits are borderline sociopathic, there's of course a method to this madness: As usual, it all comes down to money. Make no mistake, NBC couldn't have cared less that Leno was tanking in the ratings at 10pm; it never mattered to them what kind of numbers he pulled in because his show was a major success where it mattered most -- making money. Leno's torturous prime time hour was dirt cheap to produce so in the end it was all profit, even if no one was watching; throw in the money the network was saving by not spending a fortune -- and taking a risk -- on five hour-long 10pm dramas and they may as well have put an ATM in Leno's parking spot. But what was threatening NBC's idyllic little cash harvest was an affiliate revolt that the network couldn't continue to quash through various strongarm tactics and which might have eventually impeded the proposed Comcast deal; the locals were getting killed by Leno, both in ad sales at 10pm and as a lead-in for their 11pm news (and to give you an example of the importance of the latter, at the time I was producing for KNBC, their 11pm show was responsible for a full 43% of the station's revenue). One affiliate, WHDH in Boston, had already gone head-to-head with NBC over Leno and recently dozens of others began threatening to pull the show, regardless of how NBC felt about it. The network had no choice but to concede.
Here's the thing, though: A lot like the taxpayer bailout of banks that deserved to fail because they'd been so obscenely mismanaged, Leno had his shot in prime time and it didn't work out (even if that shot had been cynically engineered by the NBC brain trust and was never really a great idea to begin with), yet he's going to get to keep his TV gig and an innocent party will have to foot the bill. It's too bad for Leno that his show had to be put out of its misery, but that doesn't mean NBC should be able to move all the pieces back where they were and pretend like it's, literally, business as usual. NBC screwed over Leno and then admittedly set him up to fail in prime time, but he did get a show in prime time -- it just didn't take off. The Tonight Show, at the start time it's had for years, belongs to Conan now because NBC said so and it shouldn't reserve the right to essentially take it away from him after a mere four months, or push it back in the schedule so that they theoretically honor his contract while actually pissing all over it and patting themselves on the back for their clever ingenuity in figuring out a way to have it all.
And that's what it really comes down to. NBC won't take responsibility for screwing everything up; they'll bail out Leno, trash their relationship with a very funny guy who's been a loyal marquee talent for them for 17 years and likely drive him to another network where the opening monologue on the first night of his new show will almost certainly feature nothing but jokes of the "Fuck You, NBC" variety, and when it's all over they'll have gained absolutely nothing but a PR disaster and a Tonight Show helmed by a host now generally viewed as a network-killer whose tainted reputation they themselves helped cement.
Leno should bow out gracefully, but it's his own ego and the dollar signs in NBC's eyes that'll make sure that doesn't happen.
By the way, if Conan does decide to swallow every ounce of his pride and go along with NBC's grand plan to push him back past midnight, the odd man out is Carson Daly, since Late Night and its funny-as-pancreatic-cancer host Jimmy Fallon would begin airing at 1:05am. NBC Universal TV Entertainment Chief Jeff Gaspin says that Daly's show would die, but that "Carson will be part of the NBC family regardless of what happens."
These days, considering how dysfunctional the "NBC family" is, that sounds more like a threat than reassurance.