Besides being a 'radio personality' (ok, DJ, air talent, etc.) I'm also a programmer. So I think I'm moderately qualified to state the following: NBC has screwed up late night again!
Flashback over 15 years ago: Johnny Carson was retiring. Letterman was on after Carson. Letterman thought he should inherit Carson's show. Instead, it went to Carson fill-in Jay Leno. Letterman left NBC and went across the street to CBS. Conan O'Brien got Letterman's old timeslot. NBC had quite a mess on their hands. (If you haven't seen the 1996 movie "The Late Shift" its an entertaining look at the whole story).
It worked out for NBC surprising everyone. Letterman won the ratings race at 10:30 p.m. (11:30 on the east and west coasts). Conan did quite well in Letterman's old slot on NBC. Leno eventually began beating Dave. NBC ended up appearing to be genius in the end.
Fast forward to 2009. NBC comes up with this great idea to have a cheaply produced nightly show before the news at 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on the east and west coasts) and Leno was moved. The ratings were dismal. NBC claims it met their expectations yet it became a terrible lead-in for the late news and local affiliates (fancy name for the local station in your town that carries NBC programming) screamed. In the meantime, Conan gets Leno's old time slot and the ratings have been soft for both.
Now, the experiment seems to be over. Its all over the internet the last two days (TMZ, Daily Variety) that after the Olympics in February Leno's moving back to his old timeslot. NBC has offered Conan an hour after Leno if he wants it (which would be at 11:05 p.m. except on the east and west coasts which would be 12:05 a.m.). If Conan doesn't want it, Leno will be back to his hour long show. If Conan stays, it'll be a half hour of Leno followed by Conan. And, nobody has said it yet but apparently Jimmy Fallon will be on much later if Conan stays. Then there's Carson Daly's show which sounds like it'll be on at 2 a.m.-ish. 3 hours of back to back talk shows after the late news (minimum). Do viewers and advertisers want that much that late?
Here's where I'm thinking the failure occured: No one at NBC apparently thought about the fact that Leno could fail at the earlier show. And, if he did, what were they going to do? When programming anything (radio, TV, whatever) you always have to think about all angles. It sure sounds like that wasn't the case at NBC. But, it hasn't been in good shape for quite a while. Its become a dismal fourth in the network ratings.
Here's one possible scenario: Conan passes on the later show. Leno gets his old timeslot back. Conan goes to another network (Fox or ABC?). And, it sets up a three way network war after the late news. It could get ugly. Or juicy. Depending on how you look at it.
We'll find out soon! And, it's probably going to be awesome drama. If you like that sort of thing.