When mismanagement gives you lemons, mismanagers make lemonade. In the case of NBC, a broadcast network careening into a creative and ratings black hole, that means its executives have opted to throw out the playbook on prime-time programming and along with it a history of quality dramas in the 10 p.m. weekday time slot.
In their place, NBC announced a plan Tuesday to install current Tonight Show host Jay Leno in a new program, The Jay Leno Show, which will air as a lead-in to affiliates' 11 p.m. newscasts Monday-Friday. Leno's 17-year tenure as host of The Tonight Show will end May 29; his prime-time premiere will come about three months later.
At a press conference in Los Angeles, Leno said his new program will largely resemble his current show with a monologue, man-on-the-street segments, headlines, and celebrity guests. The show will be taped in Burbank, Calif., a few hours before it airs, just like The Tonight Show.
"Hopefully we'll get out of the studio a little more," Leno said. "We may have more newsmakers, more topical stuff."
Airing Leno at 10 p.m. five nights a week will save NBC millions of dollars - potentially hundreds of millions - in programming costs. Dramas, generally budgeted at $2 million per episode at minimum, are far more expensive to produce than a talk show. Even if NBC pays Leno $30 million to $40 million a year, as some media outlets report, NBC will still realize significant savings. Five nights of dramas, producing 22 episodes a season, cost at least $220 million; Leno's show might cost less than $100 million annually.
NBC also benefits by preventing Leno from jumping to a rival network while maintaining the deal NBC struck with Conan O'Brien in 2004 to take over The Tonight Show next year.
By installing Leno at 10 p.m., NBC will essentially reduce its prime-time schedule by five hours a week, unthinkable in the past when NBC stood for quality programming. Series such as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Miami Vice, L.A. Law, Crime Story, Midnight Caller, Quantum Leap, Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Boomtown, and ER aired in the 10 p.m. time period.
NBC trumpeted The Jay Leno Show as the first entertainment program to be "stripped" - airing at the same time, five nights a week - in prime time on broadcast network television. But rather than something to crow about, that's a testament to NBC's failures since the ascendancy of NBC CEO-President Jeff Zucker in the executive ranks.
NBC has squandered its leadership role in both ratings and creative programming to the point that it can afford to give five hours of prime time to Leno without displacing any hit series. With ER already scheduled to end its run in March, the only successful series NBC programs at 10 p.m. is Law & Order: SVU on Tuesdays.
With so many failures earlier in the evening, NBC should have no problem slotting SVU (and possibly the original Law & Order) in an earlier time slot. Even NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman joked that NBC execs know Leno will be preferable to recent drama series "by putting them on the air" and seeing the dramas languish from lack of viewer interest.
"What Ben is saying," Leno joked at Tuesday's press conference, "is we barely have six hours of programming. Help me!"
For O'Brien, NBC's move makes The Tonight Show less of a prize; although he won't have to compete with Leno - the likely outcome if Leno had jumped to ABC - O'Brien will still be on the air later than Leno. And when it comes to booking guests, Leno will continue to have a leg up: More TVs are turned on at 10 p.m. than at 11:35; celebrity publicists will angle to get their clients in front of the most eyeballs possible.
Leno, who said he and O'Brien are "great friends," characterized the competition to woo guests as "no more than it is now," later adding, "I'd rather fight with my family than the other networks." O'Brien did not appear at NBC's press conference and could not be reached for comment.
NBC has been building O'Brien a new studio in Los Angeles on the Universal Studios lot, which he will move into when The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien debuts on June 1.
Even if Leno's new 10 p.m. show succeeds, O'Brien could lose if seeing Leno at 10 brings about a Pavlovian response in viewers to hit the sack, eroding ratings for The Tonight Show at 11:35 p.m.
Network executives touted The Jay Leno Show as "DVR-proof," meaning it's a show viewers are more likely to watch live than to record and watch later. Advertisers prefer programs where their commercials are more likely to be watched and not fast-forwarded through.
"The threshold (for success) is much lower than it would be for scripted programming because the cost of this show is much lower than the cost for scripted programming," said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. Leno draws about 4.8 million viewers in late-night, a number that would be considered abject failure in NBC's prime time.
"Do we expect to beat CSI (on CBS)? Not (when it's a) first-run episode," Leno said. "But most network shows are on 22 weeks. We'll be on 46, 48 weeks."
NBC affiliates could benefit if Leno's new series is a hit. Ratings for 11 p.m. local newscasts haven't been helped by NBC's duds, including the recently canceled My Own Worst Enemy, whose title succinctly describes the relationship between affiliates and the network.
Leno's has long been the top-rated late-night talk show, but how will that translate in prime time where the competition will be CSI: NY, CSI: Miami, and other dramas that traffic in suspense and intensity, elements that seem more likely to retain viewers for an hour than a talk show?
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.
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