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Jay Leno

Is Jay Leno’s Switch to Primetime a Good Move for NBC?

December 10, 2008 01:57 PM
by Josh Katz
Leno’s new show will save NBC money but could cause tension with Conan O’Brien.

New Leno Show to Air at 10 p.m.

NBC will save plenty of money holding on to Jay Leno: Although the network pays him a sizable $30 million annual salary, it costs around $3 million to produce an episode of a TV drama, and Leno only requires about $400,000 a night for his talk show. Furthermore, original TV dramas only air about 22 times a year, while Leno could assemble 46 weeks of new material a year, Entertainment Weekly reports.

The new Leno show, which will probably be called “The Jay Leno Show,” will take many of the familiar elements of the old show with it to primetime. The monologue isn’t going anywhere, nor are the news and headlines, Leno noted. The show will most likely go off-site more, and include more features made popular by “Jaywalking,” according to Lynette Rice of Entertainment Weekly. Conan O’Brien will take over “The Tonight Show” on June 1.

With Leno, O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly occupying NBC’s late-night lineup next fall, the network will be airing 3 1/2 hours of talk show per night. For the first time, the station will have more hours of talk a week than prime-time hours for other shows, such as reality shows, dramas and game shows.

Most commentators agree that O’Brien suffers from the arrangement. The two will battle for the best celebrities, “even more aggressively than they do now,” according to the Los Angeles Times. And with O’Brien moving to the West Coast, they will both be vying for the same group of celebrities.

O’Brien, however, has not outwardly expressed any rancor. He said he was “thrilled” that Leno would stay on the same network.  “I've known about this for a while," O'Brien told his viewers. "I've talked a lot about this with Jay. … He has been my lead-in on this program for 16 seasons. He is a fantastic lead-in. He is a huge part of my success. I am indebted to Jay Leno."

"It does take the wind out of his sails slightly," Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vice president of ad-buying firm Starcom, said about O'Brien. "Jay's audience will probably tune in to Jay, and Jay's audience is getting older and might appreciate the fact that Jay's coming on a lot earlier now. … So I feel like it puts Conan at a disadvantage. That's a lot of talk shows for one evening."

Responding to questions about the competition this would fuel between him and O’Brien, Leno said he would rather “fight with family” than switch networks. NBC was certainly concerned that Leno would accept an offer from another network, and observers believe the decision to move him to 10 p.m. is at least partly a defensive maneuver.

NBC has not had a blockbuster show since “Heroes” debuted in 2006, and the writers’ strike only added to the bleeding. The network’s viewership is down 11 percent, and hit shows have been rare. The experiment with Rosie O’Donnell’s variety show collapsed after just one episode, and shows like “My Own Worst Enemy” and “Lipstick Jungle” have flopped as well.

Opinion & Analysis: Questioning NBC’s strategy

Hollywood producers have criticized the Leno plan, according to Reuters. "I'm wondering if NBC is publicly transforming itself into AM radio," said James Duff, creator/executive producer of TNT's "The Closer." "I thought they were in a coma, so it's a good sign ... They're actively participating in their own demise."

Peter Tolan, co-creator/executive producer of FX's "Rescue Me,” agreed. “As entertaining as Jay is, I think it's too bad that NBC is making choices primarily from a financial consideration vs. putting on the best possible work," he said.

Tolan and Chuck Lorre, co-creator/executive producer of CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," wondered, "Is NBC considered the Big Four anymore?"

But Jenji Kohan, creator/executive producer of Showtime's "Weeds," noted that dramas might benefit. "There is an appetite for good, quality dramas," he said. "The more that the broadcast networks transform themselves into reality and talk shows, the more that dramas will go to cable and be done properly—the way they can't on broadcast anymore."

Leno’s move to primetime could also result in lost jobs. Dramas employ more writers and actors than talk shows, so "This could put a lot of people in Hollywood out of work," said Erik Sorenson, a former CBS News and MSNBC executive, according to the Los Angeles Times.

And what if viewers simply lose interest in Leno? If the new “Jay Leno Show” essentially becomes a mirror of its old self, “what happens if viewers grow as tired of ‘Jaywalking’ as they did of ‘Will & Grace’ stunt-casting?” Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune asks.

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