Is It Time to Pull Plug on Leno?

"I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say," he told Broadcasting & Cable. "So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing OK."

But some media watchers question just how OK.

"I think NBC is at or near a tipping point where something needs to be done," Kim Masters, host of The Business on Los Angeles public radio's KCRW, told ABCNews.com. "It's not simply that it's not performing strongly or the affiliates aren't doing well, Conan is not performing as well in that time slot or Jimmy Fallon after him. There's a bit of a domino effect."

NBC's affiliates, already battered by the economic downturn, have seen their ratings drop 16 percent and, in some cases, like Baltimore, lost their number No. 1 position in the market, according to Masters. Meanwhile, "The Tonight Show" with new host O'Brien is off 23 percent, Masters said.

"NBC can say we're saving a lot of money," Master said. "But what about adding in all the money that they've lost, that would flow back from their own stations, from 'The Tonight Show?'"

Who's to Blames?

Leno said the affiliates didn't sound worried when he spoke to them last week. "They seem to be hanging in there and say they are in it for the long haul," he told Broadcasting & Cable. "I called Baltimore, Boston, the head of the affiliate board. They don't see it as dire as a lot of people are making it out to be."

Leno added that O'Brien is "doing fine." So is Leno, for that matter.

"I'm actually doing well; this is almost the best year for personal appearances since I started," he said. "So there is no negativity there."

That's despite the battering Leno has taken in the press since his primetime debut. Masters and Hibberd say it's unfair to blame Leno.

"I don't think Leno is to blame for anything," Hibberd said. "The company had a complete win on late night and they were at least competitive sometimes at 10. They traded that for being in a death struggle at late night to win and third place often at 10. I'm not sure how great a trade it was."

"NBC sort of designed their own crisis," he added.

These days, it's looking like the best way out may be for parent company GE to sell NBC Universal and there is talk that a deal with cable giant Comcast could be in the works. What Comcast would dois anybody's guess.

But Masters said there's a growing chorus of voices saying NBC should just pay off Conan and let Leno go back to what he does best - late night.

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