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Top TV Stories of 2009: The Jay Leno Experiment

by Jason Hughes, posted Dec 25th 2009 10:02AM
The Jay Leno ShowFor better or worse, 2009 was inevitably going to go down as the season that NBC changed the game. If not the face of television, they certainly changed their own face. And this was before they got bought out by Comcast. The jury's still out on whether or not it was a good move, with early returns mixed.

It looks like NBC had three problems kicking around their heads. First up was what to do about Jay Leno. They'd already promised his gig on The Tonight Show to Late Night host Conan O'Brien back in 2004, and yet Leno remained doggedly at number one in the late night ratings war. "What if he defects to ABC and takes his sizable audience with him?" they worried.

The second problem was the stunning turnaround and collapse of their once mighty television empire. For a long, long time, the peacock ruled the roost, but the 2000's had watched that fade and drop until suddenly the mighty NBC was coming in a consistent fourth in the ratings.

The last problem was probably a direct result of the second one. Ratings in the toilet means lower rates for their ads. No longer could they charge Friends-sized rates for advertisers to jump on board their "Must-See" lineup on Thursday nights when they weren't getting must-see ratings. And with ER's end on the horizon, the last remnant of their glory days was disappearing into the night.

So somebody had the brilliant idea to try and fix all three of these problems in one fell swoop. Or at least two of them.

Actually, there may have been a fourth problem. New series development wasn't going particularly well at NBC. When was the last time the network had a breakout hit? I think it was Heroes, and that gravy train lasted exactly a season-and-a-half before crashing and burning into the WGA Strike and never recovering.

The Office is a hit, but certainly not on par with NBC Thursday comedies of the past. 30 Rock is a critical darling, but that hasn't translated into strong numbers. Even the sexy stalwart, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was no longer the powerhouse it had once been, and The Apprentice and Deal or No Deal didn't have enough lasting power.

No, NBC needed a solution right now and suddenly they saw Leno as not a potential defector and a problem, but as a potential savior. Leno was drawing an average of 5.7 million viewers consistently for more than ten years each night on The Tonight Show. If he could match those numbers at 10 o'clock (Eastern), NBC could make a ton of cash.

Even if the newly dubbed The Jay Leno Show failed to attract the same number of viewers at 10 p.m. than some of their recent scripted dramas, it was so much cheaper to produce, the network could still make money off of it. What could possibly go wrong?

The first problem came up right away, with one of their affiliates threatening to not air The Jay Leno Show, fearing diminished returns would negatively impact the local newscasts that follow. NBC threatened this affiliate back into the fold, but what was feared has come to pass. Many NBC affiliates' 11 o'clock newscasts have seen significant audience erosion. Pissing off and hurting your affiliates can't be a sound business strategy.

The second problem was perhaps a bit more anticipated. After launching to a massive 17.7 million viewers, the show has seen those ratings collapse into the 4.5-6 million range. A big part of the reason for the collapse was that NBC promised The Jay Leno Show would be a bold departure from The Tonight Show and offer something different and new. Either that was a lie, or NBC thought shuffling some segments around in the hour meant new.

Ironically, as time has progressed, the network has made even more changes to the show to make it even more like the old Tonight Show in presentation in an attempt to bolster the ratings.

While it's too early to say if this will ultimately prove to be a good move or a bad move for the network, there's already been some interesting fallout. While not a ratings juggernaut itself last season, Southland was a critically acclaimed drama that had shown some potential in ER's old time-slot on NBC in early 2009. With Leno in that slot now, NBC officials claim they were worried about Southland's darker content at an earlier hour, and so canceled the show before it had even begun airing its second season.

TNT swooped in almost immediately and picked up Southland. They'll begin airing both the first season episodes NBC did air, as well as the six filmed for this season that NBC passed on. To make the smack a little louder, they'll do so at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesdays, so Southland can compete directly with The Jay Leno Show. They've already beaten Leno head-to-head with some of their other shows this season, like The Closer and the premiere of Men of a Certain Age.

Television writers, actors and producers fear that if NBC ultimately determines this is a profitable way to make money, other networks may follow suit. With the network audience continuing to erode, why pay millions of dollars per episode for a flashy dramatic series at 10, when $350,000 to $400,000 a night can net you 5-6 million viewers.

[You can catch clips and full episodes of The Jay Leno Show on SlashControl.]

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I don't think a 10PM daily stripped show would have been a mistake...only if the show was good. "The Jay Leno Show" isn't that show. The comedy is below-average: the correspondents' presentations are weak (i.e. the JMZ bit), the car challenge is a waste of time and 10@10 bit isn't that innovative. I like Leno - the comedian, but the "Leno" staff didn't pull off a good show around him.

Now, let's say there was a show with more energy and a stronger concept, then NBC would have been heroes. On a talk show side, imagine "Lopez Tonight" with its daily energy and flashing lights. I think that show would have done better at 10PM. Or maybe a comedy shows similar to "Daily Show" or "Colbert Report" with comedy bits that work. Maybe look at the foreign variety series; they have had successful formats for years with huge ratings.

The bottom line, unfortunately, "The Jay Leno Show" isn't funny and the viewers have spoken.

December 26 2009 at 2:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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