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With Leno on shaky ground, NBC lineup is up in the air

Jay Leno speaks during the panel for

Jay Leno speaks during the panel for "The Jay Leno Show" at the NBC Universal Television Critics Association summer press tour. (August 5, 2009) Credit: AP

A day before a scheduled meeting with the press in Pasadena, Calif., and a week before a very important one with affiliates, here's where NBC found itself Friday:

The network is on the verge of canceling a much-touted failure, "The Jay Leno Show." Its star would be moved back to 11:35 - except the guy who is there now is threatening to walk, which could leave the network without a major star. And what about those five hours of prime-time real estate that must be filled after the Olympics end?

That about sum it up?

To call NBC's comedy of errors, miscues and miscalculations a mess does injustice to the word. Messes can be cleaned up. This disaster - much better word - might not be. Not easily, anyway.

Friday, NBC was expected to make an official announcement about Jay's return to 11:35, admitting that ratings for the 10 p.m. show have been a disappointment and that the network's affiliates have lost viewers to their 11 p.m. news broadcasts as a result.

The day grew long and the network retreated behind a wall of silence.

But speculation intensified. Conan O'Brien was resisting NBC's plan to push him back to midnight (Jay's show would air at 11:35, Conan's from 12 to 1), and to anyone who asked, Fox replied (privately): Sure, Conan O'Brien would be a great fit over here.

There is a contract that binds Conan to NBC for years to come, so this could be gamesmanship or good old-fashioned troublemaking.

In any case, the mess got messier.

How this proceeds from here could go as follows: Conan accepts the midnight offer - as the figurative late-night second banana to Jay. It's not the worst option in the world, and he could then wait until either Jay's 11:35 show stumbles - a distinct possibility given the damage NBC has wrought on Jay - or until Jay one day departs.

Or, Conan refuses the midnight offer. NBC is then forced to go to Plan B - Jay as host of "The Tonight Show," and Jimmy Fallon at 12:35 - and Conan is cast out into the cold, cruel world of Hollywood. Fox wouldn't be such a sweet deal because Fox stations may not be enthusiastic about dumping currently profitable 11 p.m. programs.

ABC? Unlikely. CBS? You know the story there.

So, we all await a final answer. The clock ticks. Meanwhile, the comedy of errors, miscues and miscalculations at NBC continues to defy all logic.

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