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Leno in Prime Time? Good for Business, Bad for TV
December 9, 2008  | By David Bianculli
I had intended to devote today's column to ABC's Boston Legal finale (thoroughly delightful), then to Craig Ferguson's remembrance of his mother on CBS's Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson(touchingly emotional). Both deserve fuller attention -- and will get in, in this space, in the coming days.

But today's breaking-news topic, trumping the others, is NBC's reported decision to turn over its 10 p.m. hour each weeknight next fall to a new talk show hosted by Jay Leno.

In a business sense, looking at it from the perspectives of NBC executives Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman, this must seem like sheer brilliance. Here are some reasons it seems like a smart move:


1) It keeps Leno from defecting to another network, thereby eliminating one possible high-profile competitor when Conan O'Brien takes over The Tonight Show next year as scheduled. That transition was Zucker's call, so this helps him save face.

2) A talk show is even even cheaper to produce than a reality show. Today, for example, is the most profitable show on television -- so NBC will save tons of money, over a calendar year. Megatons.

3) If Leno's popularity brings more people to the party at the 10 p.m. ET hour, ratings go up, and local affiliates benefit by having a stronger lead-in to their late local newscast.

But making sense financially, and making sense creatively, are two different things -- and I'm not sure either Zucker or Silverman cares about the creative thing. At TV WORTH WATCHING, we do, and here are some reasons I think the move is not only questionable, but unfortunate.

1) It means five fewer hours each week, in prime time, that will be devoted to scripted drama on NBC. With its Biggest Loser reality show and Deal or No Deal game show and others, it's already gobbling up too many hours with cheaply produced unscripted programs -- and if you add the Law & Order franchises to the mix, there aren't many hours left.

2) In programming terms, NBC now becomes more like Fox or the CW, essentially programming two hours nightly instead of three. And with TV's most mature dramas reserved for the 10 p.m. hour, this means NBC and its programming will be more immature. Which, after Knight Rider, hardly seemed possible.

3) Talk-show audiences are divided into three groups. Some love the host and tune in faithfully. Some hate the host, and won't watch no matter what. And some will tune in if the guests are interesting to them, or if they happen to be in the mood to watch TV and can't find anything else more interesting.

Some people love Conan, for example, and will follow him eagerly to The Tonight Show. Some Tonight regulars, on the other hand, can't stand Conan, and may defect. Take that equation to prime time, and to a new Jay Leno talk show. Some people will watch because of Jay -- but those who don't like Jay are now predisposed to reject NBC in the final hour of prime time, five nights a week, all year long.

4) Adding one more nightly network talk show to the TV mix is like expanding major league baseball -- teams get diluted, because there's only so much decent talent to go around. If Jay books a timely A-list guest at 10, it alters the booking options for Conan at 11:30. Poaching guests from competing shows on oter networks is one thing -- but Jay's show, by its very existence, could end up hurting The Tonight Show, especially with its early jump. Maybe NBC hasn't thought of that, but I'm betting Jay Leno has... and is smiling privately.

5) No talk show, no matter how good, is Must-See TV. Yes, it's cheaper and easier to mount a talk show that to produce a scripted show people actually care about. But a generation ago, when tasteful executives like Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff ran NBC, the 10 p.m. hour was home to such shows as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law -- all in the same TV season, every week.

By shifting from Must-See TV to Must-Profit TV in a generation, NBC is in danger of bleeding its peacock mascot of all colors but green. Good for business. Bad for television.




ceolaf said:

Great analysis, but I think that you missed on little point.

There are occasional moments on talk shows that are "Must See," but they are not predictable and they are short segments -- not the whole show.

With Hulu, YouTube and all the other ways to see those moments after learning about them, there is no need to tune in to see it live. You don't have to worry about missing something, because you can catch it later. You can rely on others to spot those moments, and watch something else instead -- or even read a book go to sleep at a reasonable hour! (Wow -- GREAT point!! -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 11:23 AM

Chris Collins said:

I agree with most of what you said David, one of my worries is that the other networks are going to follow suit...creating a 10 pm Talk Show War...it's not like ABC has much in the way of dramas left (with Eli Stone, Pushing Daisies, Boston Legal not returning...).

I don't have anything against Leno, but I can't imagine being happy with him eating up so much TV time so early.

Ah well, I guess i'll just go back to the internet and video, where the networks seem to want me to go these days :)


Comment posted on December 9, 2008 11:33 AM

Sean Dougherty said:

For a change, I had the same immediate reaction that you did. However, when NBC was running quality programming in the 10:00 p.m. hour, HBO and FX and TNT and A&E and Showtime and others were non-factors.

Quality has more ways to find viewers than ever. If Mad Men - a show about a bunch of advertising guys standing around smoking - can become a hit, then five hours of lost prime time on NBC doesn't really have the chance to damage the overall quality of TV programming.

By the time Leno's contract runs out, the networks will be even less relevant. I can now watch YouTube videos on my TiVo. How much longer before TiVo starts sponsoring programming directly?

Norman Corwin once said "I didn't leave radio, radio left me."

Network television has gone the same way.

Sean Dougherty

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 11:53 AM

Adam Bomb 1701 said:

The "Law & Order" franchises may be the first to go, as they're aging and expensive to make. "SVU" may be relegated to USA, just like "Criminal Intent" is now. NBC was thinking of cancelling "Law & Order" after season 17; only when TNT was rumored to want to pick up the series did NBC renew. Now, the show is in its 19th season. I don't know how the ratings are, but it may not make 20. Regardless, I won't be watching Leno. In my mind, people want different stuff in prime time, not same-old same-old every night.

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 12:58 PM

Kate G said:

I am dissapointed in NBC's decision to turn over the 10PM slot to Jay Leno. I have faithfully recorded many 10 PM dramas from NBC and the other networks, and I still believe it is a viable TV genre. With the demise of Boston Legal (one of my all time favorites) the only "free" network with decent dramas is CBS. I really feel this is a copout and laziness on NBC's part. While I understand the money saving aspect, I believe there is a way to be creative on a budget and that ther are programmers and writers who could develop new dramas without bankrupting NBC/ Universal.

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 4:13 PM

Adam Bomb 1701 said:

And, there was only one season (1986-87) that had "St. Elsewhere," "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law" on at the same time. "Hill Street" ended its run in May of '87, "St. Elsewhere" went on until May of '88. "L.A. Law" continued on to the spring of 1994. All three can be seen Sunday nights on the American Life cable channel; each episode is run twice. (One season was enough to make my point, I think. And even with all my cable and satellite subscriptions, I STILL don't get American Life. Sigh. -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 4:23 PM

Scott said:

Good stuff as usual David. They should have consulted you on All Things Considered this evening when they covered this. Maybe you weren't available. I do wish if NBC was dead set on another talk show that they would at least offer and try a fresh new talent. Give someone else a shot. (I was teaching college -- and ATC likes to treat Fresh Air folks as already "taken," so there's not a lot of overlap. But thanks for the compliment. -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 9, 2008 5:43 PM

Dom Giofre said:


I think nobody's mentioned this. Isn't it possible that WHEN Conan fails -- not "if" -- NBC'll have Jay warming up in the bullpen to save the day and return to his old niche -- nice?

Good stuff EVERYDAY. Keep it up.

Still around,

Dom Giofre (Wow! Not only is that an interesting, original take, but it's great to hear from you! To fill everone in: Dom Giofre was one of the NBC publicists when I was just starting out as a critic in the latter half of the 1970s, part of a group that was so delightful, most critics were thrilled when NBC, under Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff, scored big with quality TV a few years later. Boy, how far NBC has fallen since THOSE good old days. Hey, Dom, see if I can get an honorary invitation to the 2009 NBC publicists' reunion! Regardless, it's great to know you're a reader of this website. Honored to have you! And great point about Leno. I'll steal it for "Fresh Air" later this week... -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 10, 2008 9:05 AM

Davey said:

Remember when NBC was called the Tiffany Network for the quality of its programming? This latest move seals their new identity as the Dollar Store Network. What an incredibly cheap and sleazy trick.

I have to disagree that it's good business. The latenight audience, from all I've read is quite different from the prime time one. People watch Leno, Letterman, and the rest maybe for the monologs, which have grown universally stale, and might stay on if they're interested in watching the latest pseudo-celebrity pimping their new mediocrity. People watch dramas, even bad ones, for the story. They watch Leno, Letterman, and the rest to go to sleep.

How long before NBC starts screaming for a government bailout on account of having sleazy incomptetents running it?

Comment posted on December 10, 2008 3:41 PM

sanford bottino said:

Three cheers for a great critique regarding Boston Legal and Leno on Fresh Air.(i tried to leave a comment over there but my computer doesn't like their site.) You managed to illustrate an insidious slide towards mediocrity in american culture at a time when we can least afford it; And all in 6 minutes.! Blah blah and unreality shows or the challenge of Boston Legal to our intellectual and moral compass? I hope the suits at the networks are listening. Some of us peasant folk still rely on rabbit ears for our tv broadcasts but increasingly the only thing worth watching is pbs. thanks again. (My pleasure! Thanks for listening!... And reading! -- David B.)

Comment posted on December 15, 2008 6:33 AM
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