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GUEST BLOG #7: P.J. Bednarski Votes Yes to Leno at 10
April 10, 2009  | By P.J. Bednarski

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[At this point, our recurring guest columnists are established enough to need no (more) introduction. So here's P.J. Bednarski, with a contrarian -- but very interesting -- take on NBC's decision to import Jay Leno to prime time...]

What if Jay Leno actually reinvents NBC's 10 p.m. hour?

By P.J. Bednarski

I hardly ever watch The Tonight Show, and in fact I believe, probably too tenaciously, that Jay Leno ruined the franchise, and his move to 10 p.m. ET will damage Conan O'Brien's chances to create a Tonight Showthat will allow him to thrive. For O'Brien, an eminently decent human being, the Leno move proves that Life Is Unfair.

All that said, Jay Leno is funny. I don't think NBC should be crucified for giving him the 10 o'clock show. It's TV critic mantra to say NBC is just using Leno to reduce costs, and that they are sacrificing the time period, and that the network is putting dramatic series in peril by taking away five prime hours where they could have been scheduled. All that is true. And so what? There are about 400 other networks. If NBC has its head up its rear end, well, OK by me.

But I'm not sure the Leno move is such a bad idea.

Let's look at a brighter side. Leno's 10 p.m. show has to be reinvented so that viewers will watch the beginning -- he has no problems with that now at 11:30 -- and stick around for the end -- where right now Leno's Tonight Show loses a lot of its audience. That's a problem for NBC and its affiliates because the 10 p.m. show should crescendo into the 11 o'clock news. In an ideal world (I live there! Let's go swimming!), Leno would be a great lead-in for those hard-pressed newscasts.

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Maybe that can happen. Who says Leno at 10 p.m. should even resemble Leno's Tonight Show? Leno and NBC could recreate some blend of The Daily Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and, especially, the old Steve Allen late night shows, which had a repertory cast that included, in various guises, Louie Nye, Don Knotts, Bill Dana and Tom Poston.

Those guys created for the time an early platform for nightly sketch comedy; David Letterman learned television, and how to do his show, from following Steve Allen's template, and he has repeatedly paid tribute to the fact, especially on his old NBC show. (Indeed, paranoid Chris Elliott and Larry "Bud" Melman, the elf-like and perfectly inept character often paraded out to the unsuspecting public, were perfect Letterman substitutes for Allen's characters.).

That cast of regulars is not really so different from what Jon Stewart does now. Indeed, age aside, I think if anybody ought to be sweating about Jay Leno at 10 p.m., it's The Daily Show, which stands a good chance of having some of its broader news-breaking satires usurped by Leno an hour earlier.

If the new Leno show opened with his monologue, jay leno monologue tonight.jpgthensegued to the obligatory guest and musical act,and then segued into sketch comedy where he was either absent or involved only peripherally (because he's lousy at it), that would be a show that would have something going for it. Any mix like that could work.

The fact that I've consciously chopped Leno's show into parts doesn't hurt. If viewers don't TiVo, they graze. If NBC saves the best (Leno's monologue) for the beginning and the end (a nightly mini-version of Saturday Night Live, if you will), Leno works. If not a nightly hit, it would at least be a hit some days of the week, which seems to be better than what NBC has now.

While the world is filled with superstars, Leno does a great job of getting name guests that you might want to see if you A) don't have to stay up late, or B) imagine that you'll actually watch on TiVo at some point. This week, guests include Ellen DeGeneres, Halle Berry, Keith Olbermann, Reese Witherspoon and Condoleezza Rice. Musicians include Prince, P.J. Harvey and John Parish, and the incredible Raul Malo, old of the spectacular Mavericks. Out of five days, I could see myself drifting over there perhaps three or four times, particularly if NBC is smart enough to make sure Leno's still on when competitors go to commercials.

All this is a long way to say that WHDH, the Boston affiliate which made headlines in the last few days by announcing it plans to pre-empt Leno for local programming, is making a mistake if it fears Leno at 10 will torpedo its news at 11.

NBC has told WHDH owner Ed Ansin, in essence, to shut up. I'd take that advice because when NBC wants to, it can give wayward affiliates a bad time.

Consider the plight of former NBC affiliate KRON in San Francisco. When, in 2001, Young Broadcasting acquired that station, beating a bid by NBC, the network was so livid it made it almost impossible for KRON, once owned by the San Francisco Chronicle, to remain associated with NBC. Without that affiliation, Young has suffered to the point of bankruptcy, as an indie. Ansin reportedly has protection against that; I wouldn't count on it.

When it comes to money and Leno, NBC is sure to get the last laugh. And as a former Fox general manager told me, why does Ansin think Fox won't continue to dominate the news ratings at that hour?

Maybe the best advice would be for NBC affiliates (and others) to try a little reinvention themselves. At best, they're in a world of alien hairdos and stupid puns. At worst, they're in a world of stupid hairdos, bad puns, insipid weathermen and dumb teaser questions at the commercial breaks.

Jay Leno won't always be the biggest joker in the evening. The news team is coming up.


pj bednarski midshot.jpgP.J. Bednarski is a veteran TV critic and former executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.






Gregg B said:

PJ, I think you are giving NBC too much credit. The executives are probably thinking don't mess with success. Leno will have the same exact format because they (network bigheads) think that works. Oh, he probably loses viewers because it's late, but at 10:30 people aren't tired. You will see headlines and jaywalking and the rest of the crap they use as fillers.

Comment posted on April 10, 2009 2:57 PM

Curtis said:

I have distinct memories, as a kid, of watching Jack Paar of Friday nights at 10 because my folks didn't care if a 12 year-old stayed up that late on a non-school night. They also used to let me watch the Tonight Show on Fridays.

If Leno's producers are smart they'll
a. Get rid of the glitz and the desk and go back to the sitting around the table.
b. Do a specialty show every night of the week - one night politics, one night comedians, one night sports figures, one night Hollywood and TV stars and maybe Friday night a whole night of music ala the old "Midnight Special" shows.
And c. Maybe once in a while he'll do an actual "live" show like SNL does.

Comment posted on April 11, 2009 10:34 AM

pj bednarski said:

PJ responds:
Thanks for the comments. Obviously, I agree more with Curtis than Gregg, but the basic point is that Leno creates an alternative, and if NBC works to spruce it up so it's an "event" on some nights of the week, it could do well.
As for Paar in prime time, I don't remember that, but after I do know that after Allen left the the Tonight Show, NBC briefly put him up against Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights but that didn't work. Thanks for reading and writing.

Comment posted on April 12, 2009 7:49 PM
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