NBC facing long road back after Conan O'Brien drama

Fri Jan 22, 2010 10:41am EST
 
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By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC may have put a public relations nightmare behind it with the departure of "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien, but the network faces a long, costly road to revive its sagging fortunes, media analysts said.

NBC's $45 million exit deal for O'Brien was seen as a drop in the bucket against NBC Universal's estimated $3 billion cash flow, and a cheaper solution than paying off Jay Leno after the failure of his new prime-time talk show.

Leno will return in March as the frontman of the "Tonight Show," which he hosted for 17 years and made the top-rated late night program on U.S. television. But the move leaves the network with a worrying hole in its prime-time line-up.

NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co., will likely have to spend about $300 million to develop new dramas and comedies for the slots left by its cost-cutting experiment with Leno, RBC analyst David Bank said.

The Hollywood Reporter said the $45 million that will go to O'Brien and his staff "could have paid for about eight drama pilots."

"This has been a nightmare for NBC. It's not that they can't turn it around. They are just going to have to be very patient," said Marc Berman, senior TV writer with Mediaweek.

"Now they have to focus on programing and change their tune, and they have to spend a lot of money. They can't be cheap about it now," Berman said.

NBC, under the leadership of NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker, has trailed the other three big U.S. networks in ratings for most of the last five years after failing to find a replacement for 1990s hits "Seinfeld" and "Friends".   Continued...