Leno, O'Brien, and NBC's Quagmire

It’s hard to imagine how NBC could have bungled its late-night lineup any worse.

The network painted itself into a corner when it swapped out Jay Leno for Conan O'Brien as The Tonight Show host last year.

Now, the peacocks have come home to roost at NBC following Leno's disastrous 10 p.m. show. The network plans to put Leno back in his old 11:35 p.m. slot, shift O’Brien back to 12:05 a.m. and, well, few folks are paying attention to how it all affects Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, apparently.

There’s still hope for Leno, O’Brien, and the rest of the NBC lineup to survive this programming debacle, but it’s going to take some near perfect execution to ride out this media maelstrom.

The Jay Leno Show turned out to be a turkey, transforming NBC’s primetime lineup into a serious ratings drain. And O’Brien continues to struggle against rival talker David Letterman over at CBS, a show Leno routinely outdrew when he lorded over The Tonight Show.

The remedy to the problem may only compound NBC’s woes.

O’Brien all but refused to move to a new time slot according to a funny but strained public statement.

It’s hard not to hear Letterman’s signature cackle ricocheting around the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he hosts his nightly show. His Jan. 12 monologue took unbridled glee at mocking the imbroglio.

The seeds of destruction were planted six years ago when O’Brien signed a contract extension with NBC which included him taking over The Tonight Show in 2009. The network didn’t want to lose O’Brien to a competitor and figured Leno would be fading by then.

But while Leno’s hair kept getting more gray, his ability to lure in viewers stayed forever young. Leno’s dominance over Letterman continued more or less for those six years, and when it came time to hand the franchise over to the red-haired comic it seemed like the worst possible decision.

But a contract is a contract, and now NBC is stuck with too many hosts and too few time slots.

The irony is Letterman has never been more vulnerable. Had Leno been kept in his late-night perch, it could have been a nightly TKO for the lantern-jawed talker.

The revelations of Letterman’s serial infidelities certainly hurt his brand to some extent, forcing him into awkward mea culpas and reducing the pleasure he might otherwise take in mocking celebrities who cheat.

Letterman’s tasteless attacks on Gov. Sarah Palin and her children also chipped away at the goodwill people felt toward the veteran comic.

And Letterman has shown a reluctance to tease President Barack Obama in his nightly monologues even though mocking the commander in chief is the unwritten rule for late-night comics.

That’s where Leno can come in. Viewers trust him as a neutral arbiter, so he has a longer leash in tweaking the president. And since Letterman isn’t up to the task, and more Americans disapprove of the president -- and his policies -- it makes sense for Leno to hit Obama squarely when he returns to late night.

But that isn’t the only way Leno can recover his mojo. He’ll have to ditch some of the strained bits he cooked up in recent months, like the inane car races outside his studio and the over-prepared questions he lobs at his guests.

Leno should go back to his stand-up roots and ditch the note cards during interviews. He still has a nimble mind and is better served by delivering fresh, unpredictable queries with his A-listers rather than engaging in pre-baked banter.

It’s hard to imagine Leno working blue or making his guests squirm, so the comfort level felt both by the stars and the audience would remain intact. The change in demeanor could earn him some rare critical acclaim as well as a few new fans.

Just don’t mess with Headlines, easily his best comic segment.

As for O’Brien, no matter what happens he'll be left unhappy -- if only because his desire to entertain millions from Johnny Carson's fabled perch has been tainted forever. He’s still the victim here, even if he can assuage his sorrows with the millions earned from his current contract.

O’Brien may have dreamed of taking over The Tonight Show chair for years, but his brand of eclectic comedy isn’t mainstream enough to gain Leno-style ratings. And Letterman still has a few leftover cool points from his early days, more than enough to keep O’Brien at bay.

O'Brien may have the viewers' sympathy, but his legal standing is less certain. The website TMZ is reporting his contract doesn't guarantee his show air at any specific time, so the network may be on firm legal ground to shift his show to around midnight.

O’Brien will be better served escaping his contract and fleeing to a competitor, what should have happened years earlier.

As for NBC, a return to the status quo with Leno back behind The Tonight Show desk is the best damage control of all -- if the network can make it happen.