NBC’s risky gambit: Leno to prime time

For all of the great things NBC Local is doing, you kind of have to wonder about the mothership. The Peacock network has struggled with programming challenges over the last few years and often finds its shows in fourth place during prime time. The network is talking to affiliates about turning some of that time over to them (for what? More news?), and now we learn that Jay Leno is going to host a new show during the 10pm hour, Monday through Friday.

With Conan O’Brien taking over The Tonight Show in May, NBC had to find something meaty for Leno, or he would’ve bolted to another network. In moving Leno to prime time, the network gives up on fixes two problems: what to do with Leno and what to do with prime time.

I have never been a fan of Jay Leno. I think he stole “The Tonight Show” from Dave Letterman, and I’ve just never understood the attraction. Neither does Dustin Rowles from the snarky and raucous movie and entertainment site Pajiba (one of my RSS favorites):

How bad is this idea? It’s horrific. It’s network suicide. Who is gonna watch Leno and then the “Tonight Show” and then “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” They’re basically running three talk shows in a row, five nights a week, broken up only by a half hour of local news. Leno is gonna pilfer half of Conan’s guest. Leno is gonna beat Conan to the punch on all the good jokes. And Leno is gonna completely dilute the staying power of “The Tonight Show.” At the same time, no one is gonna tune in five nights a week to watch Leno when he’s up against actual network programming. The novelty of a primetime, late evening talk show, if there even is one to begin with, is gonna wear off in a few weeks or months, and Leno’s late-evening show is gonna tank, right along with “The Tonight Show.” And nobody is gonna tune in religiously to Leno. The people who watch Leno are the folks who have nothing else to do at 11:30 every night and find Letterman to be too subversive for their tastes (which is saying something about their tolerance for subversiveness, considering just how tame Dave has been over the last decade). There are, like, five people who love Leno. Everyone else that watches it does so because they’re too goddamn lazy to change the channel.

In an excellent piece of insight, Scott Collins at the LATimes thinks the move is fraught with risk.

…if Leno’s new program flops — and remember, it will be competing not against “Nightline” and David Letterman but rather with the likes of “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY” — the network will be stuck with five hours per week of low-rated programming that may be difficult to get rid of.

Second, the network is going to have to find new homes for the current series that reside at 10 p.m., including the popular “Law & Order: SVU.”

…And then there’s the Conan factor…if O’Brien’s ratings sink below what Leno was doing behind the late-night desk? NBC just handed him one heck of an excuse.

While there will be tons of spin to the contrary, this is NBC giving up. From the perspective that the network is backed into a corner, you could make a case that it’s a bold strategic move. It’s cheap programming. It keeps Leno from being snatched by somebody else. But to this observer, it’s a sad commentary on what has happened to network television in the wake of disruptive influences. Late night talk has always been what you watch to ease yourself into sleep, hopefully with a smile on your face. TV’s older audience may be going to bed earlier, but I doubt this is what NBC had in mind.

Going to sleep is, however, what this feels like from the once proud peacock.


  1. […] TVBarn’s Aaron Barnhart has more great analysis, but Terry Heaton disagrees with NBC’s move: “This is NBC giving up,” he says. […]

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