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NBC and Jay Leno Get Me Thinking

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I fully understand I'm a day behind the news cycle here, but then again, this isn't a news piece, it's an opinion one. 

On Monday it was rumored, and on Tuesday it was made official, NBC will be handing Jay Leno at some point in the future (most likely the beginning of the next television season) an hour of primetime five nights a week, Monday thru Friday. This new show will, apparently, look a lot like The Tonight Show, there will be a monologue and some of his usual comedy bits, plus guests.  Leno was already scheduled to give up his slot as host of The Tonight Show at the end of the traditional season with Conan taking his spot.

There had been rumors that Leno was headed to ABC or, perhaps, FOX to launch a Tonight Show-esque program for them.  The NBC deal prevents that from taking place, so, on some level this new agreement makes some sense for the network.  However, the more I think about it, the less sense I think the deal makes.

I'm not talking about financially, at least not in the short term.  Talk shows like Leno's cost far less than traditional scripted reality shows, so even if the show doesn't do great numbers far less will be spent producing it.  Thus, even if the amount that can be charged for advertising each 30 second spot is a little less, the costs of producing it are small enough that slightly less advertising revenue doesn't hurt the bottom line.  Plus, if Leno does roughly the same number of hours of primetime that he did in late night NBC will have more original programming at 10pm than they could hope for.

As has been well noted, NBC hasn't exactly been a ratings success this year, all the networks seem to be down year-to-year, but NBC has been hurting more than the rest.  This move means that NBC will have to come up with a whole lot fewer shows than they otherwise would.  The optimist would look at the situation and figure that NBC can now put a whole more effort into developing successful programming.  That could, quite possibly, be the case. 

Call me a pessimist, but that's not how I see this move.  I see this move as NBC putting up a big old white flag.  To me it seems that NBC is saying that they can't figure out how to program three hours a night of primetime six days a week, and four hours on Sunday, and that's with them airing almost entirely repeats on Saturday and football in primetime on Sundays for about 17 weeks a year.  Effectively, NBC really only has to program five nights, 15 hours, a week for almost half the season, and they're saying that they can't quite figure out how to get that done.

The optimist would tell me that I'm being foolish, that what NBC is doing is, potentially, genius. The optimist might say that what NBC is doing is looking to the future, that they're doing something incredibly forward-looking that is going to help "save" network television in this age of cable, DVRs, and an ever-fracturing audience.

I tend to think that while it might be a success initially, NBC very well may find themselves in the same position ABC did when it aired Who Wants to be a Millionaire several times a week many years ago.  A show that was once seen as the savior of a network only led that network to an even larger slump when people decided that they didn't want to see Millionaire quite that often.

NBC needs to have a back-up plan.  They need to have a whole lot of shows in the hopper and ready to go if this scheme of theirs doesn't work, but they also need to throw a lot of money at convincing the television viewing public that their idea is a good one.  That's a lot of work for a network that has a pretty poor track record these past few seasons.  I'm not saying they can't do it, but it's not an easy task.

It is, unquestionably true that you can't win if you don't play, and NBC is definitely playing here.  The only problem may be that they're trying to draw to an inside straight and they're playing with a whole lot of cash on the table. 

Whatever happens, whether it's a success or a failure, it's certainly a fascinating attempt and I very much look forward to seeing it play out.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • http://criscohen.typepad.com/ Cris Cohen

    I am waiting for them to announce that, based on ratings research, they have decided to re-run the first hour of the Superbowl every night at 9:00.

  • Baronius

    Josh – Exactly. Didn’t NBC announce last year that they were getting rid of scripted shows in the 8-9pm slot? They didn’t follow through on it. But it sure seems like this is part of a business plan rather than a TV network.

  • http://sterfish.blogspot.com Sterfish

    This announcement along with that unfortunate Rosie O’Donnell variety special make me think that NBC is really, really desperate. I really wonder what this will mean for CBS and ABC’s schedules next season (FOX doesn’t show programming in that time slot). How aggressively will they counter Leno’s show?

    I also wonder how this will affect Conan O’Brien’s Tonight show. NBC will obviously want the biggest stars to be on Leno’s show since it will be in primetime. This could mean that Conan’s big “upgrade” to the Tonight Show will be for naught.