As NBC prepares to announce next week the remaining details of its 2009-10 schedule, I can't help but wonder, What if the beleaguered network were to strip Jay Leno's new primetime program at 8 p.m. ET, rather than 10 o'clock? The more I think about it, the more I ask myself, Why not?
Looking over NBC's current primetime lineup it seems to me that the network faces greater challenges at 8 than at 10 p.m. The lightweight action comedy Chuck, on Mondays, has failed to find a significant audience after two seasons despite massive promotion by the network and the unwavering support of television critics. The formerly energetic but now exhausted single camera comedy My Name is Earl, on Thursdays, is in even worse shape. The comedy program Howie Do It, on Fridays, has generated no audience interest whatsoever. Law & Order reruns fill the opening hour of the network's Wednesday night. The only bright light in any 8 o'clock slot on NBC's schedule is the first half of The Biggest Loser on Tuesdays (and, of course, football on Sundays during the fall season).
NBC at 10, on the other hand, isn't a total disaster. If the network were stronger, the Monday night procedural chiller Medium might be a likely candidate for cancellation, but right now NBC could (and does) do worse. Law & Order: SVU is still in the game on Tuesday, as is the Law & Order mother-ship on Wednesday. Tellingly, NBC recently unveiled the best new 10 o'clock series of the 2008-09 broadcast season when it added the cop drama Southland to its Thursday schedule. Dateline NBC, on Fridays, is certainly competitive opposite Numb3rs on CBS and 20/20 on ABC.
So why shouldn't NBC surprise the stuffing out of everyone and make the last-minute decision to drop Jay Leno into the Monday-Friday 8 p.m. time period and continue to play to its relative strengths from 9-11 p.m.? Think about this for a minute. Certainly there is a larger audience of all ages available at 8 rather than 10 p.m., as people settle in for their nightly television viewing rather than begin drifting away from it. Leno's audience could actually grow through the hour from 8-9, rather than suffer from guaranteed shrinkage during the 10-11 p.m. hour.
Much of Leno's comic material on The Tonight Show, including the recurring bits Jaywalking, Does This Impress Ed Asner, Headlines, Can You Make Betty White Flinch, Things We Found on eBay and ZooTube, would actually make for fine family viewing and would probably appeal to kids who haven't been able to watch him in late night and likely aren't allowed to stay up past 10 p.m. As we all know, contemporary kids command (or is the right word dictate?) much of their parents' spending, and Leno's finely honed goof humor could be just the ticket to lure them away from cable. (If nothing else, they can handily multi-task while watching Jay, the way they do during American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.) Similarly, much of his comedy is already custom made for teens, another demographic that is not aggressively targeted by the Big Three at 8 p.m. As for those lucrative adults in the 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 demographic groups, they might welcome an early evening broadcast alternative featuring topical comedy, hot celebrities and current musical acts. (Think of how a primetime performance by Kenny Chesney, Jonas Brothers or Beyonce would energize NBC's entire night!)
To take this further, Leno could be the ideal house organ at 8. He could feature stars from NBC series and NBCU cable programs that will be telecast on the same night right after his show. Or, even if they aren't guests, the stars of NBC's shows on those nights could appear in original interstitial bits (rather than regular old network promos) during commercial pods on Leno's show. Or they could just stop by during Leno's monologues to promote their programs.
When Leno has big-ticket guests on his show, which will surely be most nights, I think many more people would make a point to watch at 8:30 than at 10:30, especially if those guests are the stars of movies targeted to kids and teens. Robert Pattinson and Zac Efron would certainly attract some attention at 10:30, but their impact would be seismic two hours earlier.
The best part of this plan is, if Leno should flat-line at 8, it will be much easier for NBC to rebuild the hour, if only with quick-fix reality programs. But good luck with that if Leno tanks at 10. The hour will be lost.
Meanwhile, working with series it already has, NBC could easily cobble together a sturdy, adult-oriented Monday-Friday schedule from 9-11 p.m. Assuming Heroes and Medium will return next fall, they can remain right where they are on Monday. Or, if NBC renews Chuck, it could run at 9, followed by Heroes. The Biggest Loser can shift from 8-10 to 9-11 on Tuesdays. (Two-hour editions of Celebrity Apprentice do just fine on Sundays from 9-11.) NBC can schedule two sitcoms with strong female appeal on Wednesday at 9 (perhaps the new Debra Messing vehicle and 30 Rock, or Parks and Recreation if the network sticks with it - not that I'm saying it should) leading into Law & Order: SVU (which could share the time period with Law & Order, keeping it rerun free). The Office and another comedy can play between Leno and Southland on Thursday. NBC has nothing to lose on Friday, so it could go with Deal or No Deal (or another decent game show) at 9 and Dateline NBC at 10. When Friday Night Lights rejoins NBC's lineup in February 2010, it could run on Monday or Friday at 10. (It's already a sublime show, but I think FNL could really catch on if NBC and DirecTV encourage its creative team to make the show a bit more provocative. Think of the content in dramas on Fox or The CW or any number of basic cable networks.)
These are just a few suggestions, working with shows that are currently on NBC's schedule and still have a pulse. I have no idea how strong the network's 2009 development slate will be in the long run, though I am encouraged by Southland. And I continue to believe that NBC could move its summer hit America's Got Talent to the fall (in any number of 9 p.m. time periods) and grow its audience.
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