PASADENA, Calif. - The most notable change in prime-time television this fall is also the biggest change to the broadcast network landscape since upstart rival Fox launched in 1986. NBC will forgo its mantle as a home for adult, quality 10 p.m. dramas (ER, L.A. Law, etc.) in favor of stripping The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.
It's a move that's been described alternately as bold and desperate. Strong arguments can be made for both.
The seeds of Leno's move into prime time were sown five years ago when NBC executives: 1) Announced a succession plan that would see Conan O'Brien installed as host of The Tonight Show this year, replacing Leno, and, 2) Failed to develop new hits to replace then-aging favorites.
The combined effect led NBC to a point where there's no financial downside to giving five hours a week of prime time to Leno. Five episodes of his show may cost less than a single hour of a drama. And while NBC executives expect Leno to get clobbered in the ratings when he's up against original episodes of dramas on ABC and CBS, that will only happen about 22 weeks a year; Leno will produce new shows 46 weeks each year.
"I think what is going to be a success for Leno is that it's going to be the 52-week cumulative rating for the show," said NBC prime-time entertainment president Angela Bromstad during the summer press tour in July. "And I think that we will improve on our time slot and be very competitive in that time slot. It is a marathon. It's not going to be determined in the first five days of the show."
To help keep viewers tuned in for the whole hour, many of Leno's signature bits - Jaywalking, headlines - will appear near the end of the program. When the show ends, there will be no commercials between Leno's show and the 11 p.m. news on NBC affiliates, another attempt to keep viewers from changing channels or switching off the TV set.
"We've done three separate studies and all three of these studies show the same thing, that the audience is really looking forward to this comedy alternative at 10 o'clock and that they like Jay Leno," said Rick Ludwin, NBC executive vice president. "And we think it's going to help in our late night too."
Some observers disagree. Many think Leno will cannibalize the audience from O'Brien's Tonight Show. Others simply dismiss Leno because he's always been the more mainstream late-night host.
"I think it's brilliant that they put Leno at 10 because Americans get bored more easily and go to sleep earlier," said Joan Rivers, once a guest host on The Tonight Show before a falling out with Johnny Carson. "When was the last time you said, 'Did you hear what Leno said last night?' Never. So it's nice for the Midwest because the crops will be greener."
And people whose jobs depend on networks ordering drama series are notably vocal about what the ascent of Leno means for NBC's future as a purveyor of quality dramas.
"I think the reason you're hearing a very visceral backlash in the creative community to this is specific to NBC," said Shawn Ryan, executive producer of recently ended The Unit and The Shield. "You've got a generation of writers who grew up on [the network's] shows. Going all the way back to Cheers and Hill Street Blues, forward to L.A. Law and Friends and ER, it was a network that really inspired me to write. … So to me, when I look at it, it's something that feels offensive because it's that network. That network used to stand for something better."
Ryan noted another potential problem with NBC's effort: Unlike expensive-to-produce TV dramas, which can generate additional revenue on DVD and in international sales, Leno's show will have no similar profit possibilities.
"No one's interested in watching an episode of it three weeks later because all the topical humor is no longer topical," Ryan noted.
Producers have good reason to hope NBC's Leno gambit fails: If it succeeds, ABC and CBS could follow NBC's lead, dumping costly dramas in favor of less expensive programming options.
For his part, Leno pushes back at suggestions that his new show will take away from anything now on NBC.
"Let's look at all the fine scripted dramas: The Biggest Loser? Dateline? Not really, you know," he said at a news conference last month. "NBC tried scripted programming at 10 o'clock: Lipstick Jungle, Kidnapped, My Own Worst Enemy, hugely expensive shows. I thought they were OK, but for some reason, they didn't catch on. So now you try something different."
Leno said he's excited about the new venture and he seems unconcerned about how it's received.
"Hey, if we go down in flames, we will be laughing on the way down, believe me. But I think it's something different," he said. "At least it shakes up the landscape a little bit. [It's not] another 'He's a cop. She's a doctor. They are married. Let's finally fight crime.' You know, how many of those can you watch?"
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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