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NBC keeps Leno happy, but at what expense?

Jay Leno will host his last Tonight Show in May and take his popular show segments to prime time.

Jay Leno will host his last Tonight Show in May and take his popular show segments to prime time.

There is little doubt NBC has taken a huge risk in turning over one-third of its weekday prime time hours to Tonight Show host Jay Leno next year, handing him a 10 p.m. show that feels equal parts bold innovation and hail Mary desperation.

But the bigger risk may be if this daring move — a first in the history of network television — actually works.

Because, in asking Leno to create a Monday-through-Friday prime-time show, NBC may have turned its back on something network TV has always provided: the quality, adult-oriented broadcast television drama.

NBC executives downplayed the danger during a news conference Tuesday, admitting they struggled for years to keep Leno after announcing he would leave his top-rated late night program in May 2009.

Leno also shrugged off widespread speculation he would head to rival ABC after turning over his Tonight Show gig to Late Night host Conan O'Brien — rumors sparked by his own public comments.

"There were reports I was going to ABC, but that was started by a disgruntled employee … me!" he said, laughing. "But I'm still on my first wife. … I kinda leave the dance with the person who brought me."

There's little doubt NBC needs a jolt; nearly every new show has failed, and every 10 p.m. show is losing viewership. But the timing next year will be tight: Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon takes over O'Brien's 12:35 a.m. time slot on March 2; Leno hosts his last Tonight Show May 29; and O'Brien takes over June 1, giving the network three months to prepare the new show.

The notoriously workaholic Leno predicted up to 48 weeks of original shows — twice the number a conventional series offers — filled with signature Tonight Show segments such as his monologue, funny newspaper headlines, "Jaywalking" man on the street interviews and celebrity guests.

And if Leno earns his rumored $30-million salary next year, he would make less per episode than any one star from the cast of Friends in its final year ($1-million per episode) or Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay (reportedly $400,000 per episode).

Even if ratings are mediocre and critics hate the show, NBC could still make enough money to call Leno's show a success. But isn't that the kind of thinking that got U.S. automakers in trouble: profits at the expense of quality?

Other risks:

It doubles down on NBC's awful decision to replace Leno. Critics knew years ago that workaholic Leno would never voluntarily quit the Tonight Show, and his continued strong ratings have made the network look foolish for forcing the issue.

It may lower ratings. Just ask Rosie O'Donnell, whose ambitious Rosie Live variety show crashed like the Hindenburg on NBC just before Thanksgiving.

It may hurt NBC affiliates. Local stations airing NBC programming depend on strong ratings at 10 p.m. to funnel audiences toward their 11 p.m. newscasts.

It may hurt NBC's new late-night lineup. Imagine Leno debuting while legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was on at 10 p.m., and you can imagine O'Brien's problem.

NBC keeps Leno happy, but at what expense? 12/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 9:59pm]

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