NBC executives call Jay Leno the "killer app" to draw viewers to their prime time
Comparing the process to a longtime girlfriend finally agreeing to marry, NBC executives downplayed the risk in turning their 10 p.m. hour over to late-night host Jay Leno in fall 2009, a move unprecedented in the history of network television.
Joking that he hoped to work at NBC long enough to die at his desk, Leno also shrugged off the widespread speculation that he would leave NBC at the close of his latest contract next year, heading to ABC after the network gave his Tonight Show hosting slot to Conan O’Brien.
“There were reports I was going to ABC, but that was started by a disgruntled employee . . . me!” added the comic, who gathered with NBC’s entertainment co-chairs for a press conference at Universal Studios in Hollywood. “When I took over the Tonight Show, they said at some point they’re going to ask you to leave while the show is hot . . . (But) there seems to be more life there . . . We looked around, and this seemed to be a good idea.”
The news also answers two of the most pressing questions for NBC: how to keep top-rated Leno from headed to a competing network, and what to do with a prime time lineup in which every new show has failed and every 10 p.m. show is losing viewership.
The details, as articulated by Leno, seem sketchy. There will likely be a monologue; signature segments from the Tonight Show such as funny newspaper headlines, his Jaywalking man on the street interviews and stunts; celebrity guests; and bandleader Kevin Eubanks is expected to join him.
What won’t be coming with him to 10 p.m.: the Tonight Show name and signature set, including the desk.
Calling the show “totally DVR proof,” entertainment co-chairmen Ben Silverman said Leno at 10 p.m. frees up the network to focus series development on 10 hours of prime time weekdays, similar to rival Fox network. “What Ben is saying is that we barely have six hours of programming,” Leno cracked.
And when other series go into reruns or substitute programming to fill out a year, the notoriously workaholic Leno expects to offer up to 48 weeks of original shows, providing a steady flow of new material at a time when more viewers are moving to cable and online.
“This is not only a killer app because of Jay, it’s a killer app because you want to see the show that night,” said Silverman, using slang for an indispensable piece of software, like e-mail. “It’s appointment television.”
Leno credited NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker for constantly suggesting ways for the comic to stay at NBC after leaving the Tonight Show, saying the current deal only came together in recent weeks.
Not so coincidentally, that is also when the network came to acknowledge that its new shows were failing; during a separate press conference Monday, Zucker spoke about reducing the number of hours NBC fills in prime time.
“Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have made any sense,” said Leno, referring to NBC’s deteriorating prime time viewership. “I’m on the road 160 days a year, and the one thing people tell me is I wish your show was on earlier. In prime time there’s less commercials . . . (and) after 17 on the Tonight Show, it’s fun to try something different.”
But, given how NBC seemed to push him out the door to make room for Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, why didn’t he just leave for ABC or Fox?
“I’m still on my first wife . . . I kinda leave the dance with the person who brought me,” he said. “I don’t need to be the highest paid guy in show business . . . What I like to do is write jokes, tell jokes, get check. I don’t need to figure out how all this works . . . I like to make love, I don’t need to be a gynecologist.”
Click below to see Conan O'Brien's comments:
After the monologue, Conan teased," When we come back, we're going to talk about something in the news that affects me personally."
After returning from the first commercial break, O'Brien said: "I have to talk about something that's happening in my life. I woke up this morning and I saw something on the front page of the paper that absolutely shocked me. I was stunned and I have to say I didn't see this coming and I just had to share it with you for a second. Check it out ladies and gentlemen – today's New York Post (he holds up the paper and the camera zooms in past the NY Post's front-page Jay Leno headline to the weather). It says here showers and 51 degrees. 51 degrees in December?!? It was 20 degrees yesterday, that's crazy! Check this out -- Daily News (again the camera zooms in past the Leno headline to the weather) 49 degrees? Well which is it? 49 or 51? Let's get our stories straight here, people! This is insanity!"
"Let's talk about this on a serious note for just one moment, I've had many people calling me today saying, "What is all this? "What's happening?" Jay Leno is going to be going in at 10:00 on NBC. I wanted to make something very clear here on the show this evening. I've known about this for a while. I've talked a lot about this with Jay. I am thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled that Jay is staying at NBC. He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in. He is a huge part of my success. I am indebted to Jay Leno. And I love the idea that that relationship is going to continue. He is going to be my lead-in continuing, I hope, for a long, long time. So congratulations to Jay Leno. (APPLAUSE) This is a happy ending. It's very nice. We're thrilled for him and we're thrilled for everybody at the Tonight Show. Also I've talked it over with my producer and that means I can keep doing my Jay Leno impression."