NBC puts Leno on weeknights at 10, choosing profit over quality
NBC's decision to air a Tonight Show-style program featuring Jay Leno at 10 p.m. weeknights is more than a Hail Mary pass from a network bereft of new series ideas and deathly afraid of killing its late-night franchise.
It also makes NBC the first mainline network to officially abandon efforts to develop high-quality scripted programming at 10 p.m., essentially ceding that ground to competitors, especially on cable TV.
It's a bold move -- essentially taking all the signature elements of Leno's Tonight Show and moving them to an hourlong 10 p.m. show airing every weeknight (one odd moment: watching NBC employee Matt Lauer quote New York Times reporter Bill Carter's scoop on this story on the Today show this morning).
It solves the short-term problem of keeping Leno, who was prodded into giving up his 11:35 p.m. show to Conan O'Brien next year, while filling the 10 p.m. hour with a show costing a fraction of what a scripted drama would cost.
But there's some very good reasons broadcast networks haven't tried this before now. Here are some thoughts on why this is a problem for NBC and TV in general.
It doubles down on NBC's awful decision to replace Leno -- If TV executives have two talents, it's making good programming decisions and getting out of bad ones. Critics knew years ago that trying to prod workaholic Leno out of the Tonight Show would be a bad move; regardless of what he said then, he wasn't ready to leave, and his continued strong ratings made the network look foolish for forcing the issue. Now they've made a bad situation worse by taking Leno out of his element, forcing the network to endure a seismic change in late night and prime time in the same season.
It will bring lower ratings -- Much as late-night audiences seem to love Leno, there's no evidence modern TV audiences want to see the same performer on network TV five nights a week in prime time. And just ask Rosie O'Donnell -- whose ambitious Rosie Live variety show got lower ratings the Wednesday before Thanksgiving than Knight Rider -- how much higher the bar of success is in prime time.
It will hurt NBC affiliates -- Local stations airing NBC programming depend on the strongest ratings possible from the 10 p.m. hour to funnel audiences to their 11 p.m. newscasts. NBC may still make money with lower ratings on a cheaper program at 10 p.m., but local stations won't.
It will hurt NBC's new late-night lineup -- The big TV story of early 2009 just changed from NBC's young lions taking over late night to Leno reinventing prime time television. And instead of getting a grand new platform to find a new identity at 11:35 p.m., Conan O'Brien must develop his Tonight Show while the show he has replaced is airing just 90 minutes before. Imagine Jay Leno trying to take over late night while Johnny Carson was still on NBC, and you can imagine the difficulty. For example, the guy taking over O'Brien's spot, Jimmy Fallon, debuted his first online video blog last night, introducing his kicking house band the Roots and announcing his first show March 2. Guess what story critics like me will be ignoring today to talk Leno?
It will hurt network TV quality -- If NBC finds some success in this model, it won't be long before ABC follows suit, abandoning the mature 10 p.m drama to the world of reality/unscripted and CBS-style crime procedurals. Expect sophisticated, well-paid viewers to flee to cable or the Internet.
It will help competitors -- NBC is helped by the fact that ABC's 10 p.m. ratings also stink. But if you think ratings for CSI: Miami and Without a Trace are doing well now, imagine what will happen once viewers disinterested in Leno start looking around. And that promotional budget that would have been focused on training Leno's audience to give O'Brien and Fallon a chance, now must also convince viewers that five nights of prime time Leno is a good idea. Which will take some convincing.
Of course, there are always lots of reasons not to do something innovative and game-changing. That's certainly what NBC suits are telling themselves as they prepare to face critics, advertisers, network affiliates and the rest of the industry. But since I've never been the greatest Leno fan, this feels to me more like an effort by NBC-Universal chairman Jeff Zucker -- the guy who presided over the hobbling of NBC's dominant Must See TV lineup and masterminded the move to replace Leno in the first place -- to keep the plates spinning at the network until he can grab a golden parachute out the door, leaving somebody else to sweep up the smashed dishes.
Click below to see the press release, distributed at about 12:30 p.m. by NBC:
The Jay Leno Show Will Air Five Nights a Week at 10/9 CT
First-Ever Primetime Stripped Entertainment Program On Broadcast Network Television
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif., December 9, 2008 – Jay Leno will host a new comedy/talk show on NBC five nights a week in primetime, beginning in the fall of 2009. The show will originate from Burbank, Calif., and will air Monday through Friday, 10-11 p.m./9-10 p.m. CT. The announcement was made today by Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, Co-Chairmen, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. This show will be the first-ever entertainment program to be stripped across primetime on broadcast network television.
"As broadcast television continues to change, success demands a new paradigm," said Jeff Zucker, President and CEO, NBC Universal. "For the past few years, we've been very vocal about two things: Transforming broadcast television for today's media landscape, and keeping Jay at NBC. In this one announcement we have done both. It's great for NBC, for our viewers, and for our advertisers."
"Jay has played a major role in defining NBC's brand of high-quality entertainment," said Silverman. "The 10 o'clock hour will bring Jay a whole new audience and provide a great lead-in both for our local affiliates and for Conan O'Brien, the next great host of The Tonight Show."
"Clearly, today's viewers have an appetite for live, topical programming, and that's what we're bringing to primetime," said Graboff. "This innovative deal plays to NBC's strengths as the late-night leader for more than 14 years. The network will be home to three of the biggest names in TV: Jay, Conan and Jimmy."
"This is the greatest all-star comedy lineup in the history of television," said Rick Ludwin, Executive Vice President, Late Night and Primetime Series, NBC Entertainment. "And it happened because topical comedy is in the DNA of NBC and has been for decades."
Leno will sign off as host of The Tonight Show on May 29, 2009. His new show will showcase many of the features that have made Leno America's late-night leader for more than a dozen years. Signature elements will include his opening monologue and well-known comedy segments "Headlines," "Jaywalking" and "Battle of the Jaywalking All-Stars."
As previously announced, Conan O'Brien will take over The Tonight Show hosting duties on June 1, 2009, broadcasting from the state-of-the-art studio currently under construction on the Universal lot. O'Brien will continue an unmatched late-night legacy that includes Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and, for the last 16 years, Jay Leno. Jimmy Fallon will assume the role of host of Late Night on March 2, 2009.
Since becoming host of The Tonight Show on May 25, 1992, Leno has experienced numerous highlights, including winning the 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy, Variety or Music Series. Most recently, Leno was nominated for an Emmy in 2008 for his popular internet show "Jay Leno's Garage," which allows fans a peak into his famous garage by logging on to http://www.jaylenosgarage.com. Prior to becoming host of Tonight, Jay had been the exclusive guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson since September 1987. He first appeared as a guest on the show March 2, 1977, and he made numerous additional appearances on Tonight as well as on NBC's former program Late Night with David Letterman.
One of the country's premier comedians, Jay has performed thousands of comedy shows around the United States for the past 20 years. He remains passionate about performing in front of live audiences and appears regularly in Las Vegas, on college campuses around the United States, and in other venues.
Jay has authored two New York Times best-selling children's books and has published four versions of Headlines, the compilation of books and desk calendars featuring his favorite funny newspaper headlines, and Police Blotter, a book with more humorous newspaper clips involving police stories (book proceeds go to various charities).
Jay was represented by his long-time attorney, Ken Ziffren. The show will be produced by Big Dog Productions in association with Universal Media Studios. Debbie Vickers will serve as executive producer.