There was nothing subtle about the way NBC strong-armed Conan O’Brien into leaving The Tonight Show, which led to major PR blowback that hurt the image of both NBC and its venerable franchise. So the fourth-place network has decided to exercise a little restraint when it comes to promoting Jay Leno’s return to late night on March 1. ”I suspect we’ll do it with some humor and a wink, and not a sledgehammer,” says a not-so-ironic Jeff Gaspin, entertainment chairman of NBC. ”Fortunately, the positive side of this public battle is that everybody knows what is going on, so you don’t have to create awareness.” But NBC does have to give viewers a reason to watch. Under O’Brien, the show shed 50 percent of its viewers and was on its way to losing $20 million this season. Trouble is, Leno hasn’t exactly been racking up Facebook friends since it was announced that he’d be taking back The Tonight Show. According to Zeta Interactive, a company that monitors message boards and social media posts, Leno, 59, is the only player in the late-night shuffle to actually decrease in popularity — from 77 percent to 73 percent — since the war between NBC and O’Brien began. (Eighty-eight percent of Internet users, in comparison, now think favorably of the 46-year-old redhead.) Couple that with the still-lingering problems that plagued O’Brien — a weak NBC primetime schedule, David Letterman’s resurgent popularity — and NBC could be in for a rude awakening. ”I don’t think there is any question that the Leno brand has been damaged,” says Sam Armando, the director of audience analysis at the media agency Starcom. ”I don’t think he’s forever broken, but it’s not going to be fixed until NBC fixes prime time. Hopefully it will get a little better now. But I don’t think it’s ever going to get back to where it was a year ago, when he was winning.”
Hollywood, however, doesn’t appear to be concerned about Leno’s chances. The host had no problem attracting the likes of Mel Gibson to appear on his final episodes of The Jay Leno Show, which NBC announced they’ll be ending two days ahead of schedule (maybe they want to give viewers a chance to miss their ”Jaywalking”?). And the network thinks Leno will have an even easier time luring A-listers once he’s back at 11:35 p.m. Assures Gaspin, ”We believe he will be competitive and over time will do quite well.” The same could be said for O’Brien. Though he’s free to snag a new job as early as September, a source says he’s taking some time off while his agents tee up ”a lot of different options” that may or may not involve a late-night show on Fox (that network has stopped commenting). At least O’Brien got the last laugh: On his final night as Tonight Show host, he earned his best-ever overnight ratings among adults 18-49 as he made jokes about how NBC should leave his studio ”cold and empty and rename it the World’s Largest Metaphor for NBC Programming.” But then he turned serious. ”All I ask of you is one thing: Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.” Now NBC can only hope that viewers heed his words.