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Jay Leno to prime time: Why NBC is doing it

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Everyone knew the face of late-night TV would change when Jay Leno left The ­Tonight Show, but prime time as well? On Dec. 9, NBC announced that the reigning king of late night will stay put at the network by hosting an untitled new gabfest at 10 p.m. every weeknight, starting next fall. Leno, who is set to step down from The ­Tonight Show on May 29, will pack the first-ever Monday–Friday prime-time talk show with signature bits like those corny “Jaywalking” segments and a stable of A-list guests — which could set up a potential booking war with his successor, Conan O’Brien. (“I am absolutely thrilled that Jay is staying at NBC,” O’Brien said on his show Tuesday, although there are certainly drawbacks to the arrangement.)

Leno, who appeared at a press conference yesterday with his obviously relieved NBC bosses, said he’d prefer to “fight with family” than move to another network — a real possibility had NBC not persuaded him to reject offers by ABC, Fox, and even Sony to jump ship once his 17-year-run ends next spring. “My parents always said, Whatever you do in life, ­always try to come in fourth,” joked Leno of NBC’s current prime-time standing, before adding, “I’m comfortable with the people I work with. It makes it easier.”

For NBC, it’s also cheaper. Leno’s new deal isn’t exactly a bargain — published ­reports put the new contract at more than $30 million a year — but it’s a fraction of what it costs to program a scripted series in the 10 p.m. time slot, which hasn’t launched a bona fide hit in four years. The average ­drama now costs around $3 million an episode to produce; Leno needs roughly $400,000 per night for his new show. So NBC should save a mint by making him the new face of 10 p.m. (Middling but consistent performers like Law & Order: SVU are expected to move one hour earlier.) And unlike dramas, which air in originals only around 22 times a year, Leno can guarantee 46 weeks of fresh programming once he begins next fall. “Not only is the cost of the show lower, but we are offering advertisers a DVR-proof show that you can join in progress,” insists NBC co-chairman Marc Graboff. “It’s a better solution.”

addCredit(“Paul Drinkwater/NBC”)

And if there’s one thing NBC needs now, it’s solutions. Viewership is

down 11 percent, the fall slate is in shambles, and the network needs

to salvage whatever credibility it has left with Madison Avenue. This

week, NBC/Universal sacked programming exec Teri Weinberg and studio

president Katherine Pope, merged their jobs, and gave the newly created

position to former international programming chief Angela Bromstad. In

tapping Leno, the network further utilizes a ­proven late-night

performer. While his current Tonight Show ­average of 4.8 million

viewers is certainly less than what a hit scripted show would bring in,

it’s more eyes than ­recent 10 p.m. NBC programs Lipstick ­Jungle and

My Own Worst Enemy have been ­attracting.

The move also restores a

sense of much-needed order. “Networks aren’t what they used to be in

terms of prime-time programming,” says media analyst Harold Vogel.

“This is probably a better time to try than any time in the past. It

has a real shot of working.”

Ironically, the competition could also end up benefiting. The reduction

of scripted programs in the 10 p.m. hour provides the other networks

leverage to attract better shows at a cheaper price — and could give

­other series in the time slot a better chance of survival. As for

NBC, ceding prime-time territory can be risky, as evidenced by The CW’s

decision to sell away its Sunday nights this fall. (In case you weren’t

watching — and judging by the ratings, you weren’t — the farmed-out

­programming block failed miserably.)

In many ways, slotting Leno in prime time seems like

an admission that NBC’s current series development process just hasn’t

worked, and for now, it’s giving up on the hour that once launched hits

like Law & Order and ER. Says one producer with a series ­currently

airing on NBC, “It may be a very smart cost-saving measure, but it’s a

sad day for the state of network TV.” Yet a damn good one for Jay Leno

fans.

More Jay Leno:

Jay Leno to prime time?!


TV Spotlight: Jay Leno’s next move


WGA upset with Jay Leno for writing jokes during strike
Is Jay Leno the next Larry King?


How Jay Leno writes his opening monologue

And if there’s one thing NBC needs now, it’s solutions. Viewership isdown 11 percent, the fall slate is in shambles, and the network needsto salvage whatever credibility it has left with Madison Avenue. Thisweek, NBC/Universal sacked programming exec Teri Weinberg and studiopresident Katherine Pope, merged their jobs, and gave the newly createdposition to former international programming chief Angela Bromstad. Intapping Leno, the network further utilizes a ­proven late-nightperformer. While his current Tonight Show ­average of 4.8 millionviewers is certainly less than what a hit scripted show would bring in,it’s more eyes than ­recent 10 p.m. NBC programs Lipstick ­Jungle andMy Own Worst Enemy have been ­attracting.

The move also restores asense of much-needed order. “Networks aren’t what they used to be interms of prime-time programming,” says media analyst Harold Vogel.“This is probably a better time to try than any time in the past. Ithas a real shot of working.”Ironically, the competition could also end up benefiting. The reductionof scripted programs in the 10 p.m. hour provides the other networksleverage to attract better shows at a cheaper price — and could give­other series in the time slot a better chance of survival. As forNBC, ceding prime-time territory can be risky, as evidenced by The CW’sdecision to sell away its Sunday nights this fall. (In case you weren’twatching — and judging by the ratings, you weren’t — the farmed-out­programming block failed miserably.)

In many ways, slotting Leno in prime time seems likean admission that NBC’s current series development process just hasn’tworked, and for now, it’s giving up on the hour that once launched hitslike Law & Order and ER. Says one producer with a series ­currentlyairing on NBC, “It may be a very smart cost-saving measure, but it’s asad day for the state of network TV.” Yet a damn good one for Jay Lenofans.

More Jay Leno:
Jay Leno to prime time?!
TV Spotlight: Jay Leno’s next move
WGA upset with Jay Leno for writing jokes during strike
Is Jay Leno the next Larry King?
How Jay Leno writes his opening monologue

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