The skinny on the late-night king's new show and why it's a sweet deal for the troubled network

By Lynette Rice
Updated December 12, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
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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 — see below.) Leno, who appeared at a press conference Tuesday 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. On the other hand, 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.”

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. And 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, the move 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.

What About the Other Guys?
Jay Leno’s big move could affect the late-night lineup in ways both good and bad. Let’s take a look.

David Letterman
PRO He’ll no longer have to compete with Leno for viewers, which could result in a ratings boost.
CON Head-to-head competition brought out the best in Jay and Dave. Will Letterman be as sharp without his main rival to push him?

Jimmy Kimmel
PRO His ratings have been on the rise, and with Leno not moving to ABC as rumored, Kimmel remains ABC’s sole late-night comedy star.
CON A Leno lead-in could have boosted his numbers even more.

Conan O’Brien
PRO Won’t have to go up against his popular predecessor when he takes the Tonight Show reins on June 1, 2009.
CON O’Brien was primed to be the new face of NBC late-night. Now he’s once again playing second fiddle.

Jimmy Fallon
PRO The one-two punch of Leno and O’Brien could help his new 12:30 a.m. gig.
CON He’s near the tail end of four hours of nightly chat/sketch show humor (don’t forget Carson Daly!); viewers could get talked out — and tune out. — Tim Stack

The Tonight Show With Jay Leno

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