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Gaspin going, going...

  Jeff Gaspin's brief and late-night-tainted reign at NBCU is over; the network and Jeff himself confirmed late yesterday.  The departure was expected mostly because Comcast is soon the new boss, and new bosses bring in their own new bosses - and rumored now are Ted Harbert and Bob Greenblatt as future NBCE Entertainment stewards.

  Jericho-raised Gaspin's a good guy - and capable - but was handed a fairly impossible task: the transition of Jay Leno to 10 and then back to "Tonight." I'm in the midst of Bill Carter's excellent book on the late night "wars," and would imagine horror stories about the Gaspin transition efforts abound. But in retrospect, it's hard to imagine exactly what he could have done to set the Leno/Conan experiment on a right course. 

  The audience rejected Leno at 10, and - while I believe in time Conan's "Tonight" would have been succeeded - the audience also rejected Coco at 11:30, or at least the audience (older, C&D county-based, more conservative) that had traditionally gravitated to Leno's "T." Stations revolted and the old network-affiliate alliance prevailed. Gaspin could do nothing about it; no one could.

  Then, he had to quickly establish relationships with suppliers who had just months before been told to take a hike; it was amazing NBC managed to get J.J. Abrams past the front door, even if his show ("Undercovers") pretty much had no heartbeat from the opening credits.

  And so it goes. No big deal. Jeff'll be fine.

  Here's a column I wrote about him years ago, just as he joined NBC in 2001. Gives a little additional background, if you care...


BELIEVE IT or not, there is a line beyond which network TV execs will not go. It is to a place so sordid and gross that even they-with their finely honed sense of exploitation - dare not wander.

So (one anxiously wonders) what is "the line" for Jeff Gaspin, 40, the new executive vice president of alternative series for NBC? "Here's the only line I've drawn at the moment," he says matter-of-factly in a recent phone interview. "I don't want to make tragedy into entertainment."

Well, that's cold comfort until you realize he already did that 10 years ago, when he fathered a rather bad show for NBC called "I Witness Video," which at the time was TV's evil twin to "America's Funniest Home Videos."

He is currently proprietor (though not creator) of another reality show, "Fear Factor," and so another question arises: Line? What line?!

Bayside-born Gaspin lived in Jericho and Woodbury for the past 11 years, until he moved to Los Angeles this week. He's the man who helped turned VH1 into a success, and is clearly bright, articulate, and perhaps even talented. One last question: What's a nice guy like this doing in a business like reality TV, where "exploit" is not a pejorative word.

This is the summer of "Fear Factor," TV's highest-rated show (which ended its six-episode run Monday and will return in January.) "Factor" hugely offended critics, who were appalled by a certain segment in the premiere, which featured an army of rats crawling over desperate contestants.

But this is how TV works circa August 2001: Somehow get lots of viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 (who also are infrequent network viewers) to watch a reality program, and then use it to promote the heck out of new fall nonreality shows.

This is the job Gaspin signed up for, and it may just be the most important job in network TV right now. Yes, and controversial, too.

In an interview, Gaspin recalled that he showed a tape of "Factor" to his kids, ages 6 and 8. "They loved it," he said. "I couldn't watch some of it. I thought some of it was horrific, [but] my kids didn't flinch." Sometimes, he adds, "you have to take yourself out of the mix a little bit and try to figure out what the audience wants more than what you want."

NBC's new king of reality actually began his career at the network in 1984. After graduating from NYU with an MBA, he got into the executive-training program, which would lead to the stations division (where he helped with sales and pricing) and then to NBC News. At the time, the president of NBC News, Michael Gartner, was cutting costs and firing staffers, but he was not creating successful - read "profitable" - shows. Gaspin was then put in charge of a new programming division at NBC News, with this mandate: Make waves and make money.

The new unit, Gaspin recalls, was "absolutely" controversial because some veterans feared an emphasis on profit would compromise journalism. When "I Witness" bowed in 1992, their fears appeared to be confirmed.

"Dateline NBC" also was created on Gaspin's watch; he was working on other projects when the infamous exploding truck incident occurred.

Producers had staged an explosion on a GM pickup truck to demonstrate the danger of its gas tank; GM sued, NBC retracted the story, and Gartner resigned under pressure.

Gaspin survived the controversy, however, and now calls the incident "an incredible learning experience . . . The number one lesson was don't make any assumptions. . . . ['Dateline'] was moving along smoothly and [we] took our eyes off the ball."

He left NBC News within six months, worked briefly with Fox founder Barry Diller and produced some more reality shows (none took off) when VH1 hired him. He told VH1 boss John Sykes, "'You're making VH1 way too inside, making it a trade magazine about the music industry . . . . We need to broaden it."

From that suggestion would come "Behind the Music," the biggest hit in VH1 history. After that, Gaspin decided, "we had to get into other formats. We had to do scripted shows, comedy shows and other genres about music. I thought we had to go tabloidy, too."

Gaspin says his split with VH1 earlier this year was amicable - which Sykes confirms - but he admits that Sykes resisted the tabloid approach.

His next boss - Jeff Zucker, an old friend from the early NBC days and former "Today" executive producer who was named NBC Entertainment president late last year - would have no such qualms.

"Factor" was already in development, and so were more than a dozen other shows that would have aired if a writers' strike hit this summer. Gaspin has since taken hundreds of pitches and has now given the green light to a handful of "relationship" reality shows - think "Temptation Island" with twists. He declines to offer specifics. Some are expected to bow early next year.

"Every job I ever took had some form of controversy," he says. "So this was completely natural for me. This is what this business is about: invention and reinvention."

And about lines. The crossing of them. Or the obliterating of them.


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