01/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NBC and Jay Leno Put Broadcast Television in Play

If nothing else, NBC’s announcement this week that it will in September 2009 turn over one third of its Monday-Friday primetime schedule to Tonight Show host Jay Leno has put broadcast television as we know it into play. Nobody can say what the impact of this first of its kind programming strategy will be in the long run, but it will certainly mark the biggest change to the primetime broadcast landscape since 1971, when CBS, NBC and ABC were made by the FCC to surrender a collective nine hours of weekly national primetime to their affiliates by moving the start of their Monday-Saturday primetime blocks from 7:30 to 8 p.m.
All that can be said for certain at this early time is that NBC would not be making this move if A) network executives had not made the boneheaded decision several years ago to send Jay Leno shuffling off to greener pastures because he would be way too old by 2009 to continue working as hard as he has, not to mention continue drawing young viewers to The Tonight Show, and B) NBC was not coming off its second consecutive season of sweeping fall flops. The Peacock hasn’t developed a scripted series worth a damn since 2006, when it unveiled Friday Night Lights, Heroes and 30 Rock. That’s not to say the series concepts it has moved forward with have been poor choices – many of them were quite promising, at least on paper. The problem has been in their execution. Of course, that says as much about show-runners, writers and the folks who represent them as it does network and studio executives.
The decision to give Leno five hours of choice real estate would seem to solve almost all of NBC’s problems in primetime and late night, at least for the near future. And it is certainly in keeping with NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker’s long-stated assertion that the broadcast model as it has stood for decades must change. Zucker has said the same about broadcast’s upfront structure, which NBC completely renovated earlier this year, green-lighting new series without seeing pilots and announcing them to advertisers and journalists in very early April, rather than mid-May. The network at that time also laid out detailed plans covering 65 weeks of primetime programming, further indicating that nothing would be the same going forward at NBC. Presumably that extremely ambitious plan has been watered down in light of this week’s startling announcement.
Also in question is NBC’s long-time lust for upscale viewers. If the recent content of his comedy on Tonight is any indication, Leno is hugely popular with baked college kids and all those Joe Six-Packs that elitists sniffed at during Campaign 2008. Not exactly the 125K-plus crowd.
Leno has said that when he moves to primetime he will bring with him certain components of the current Tonight Show. (It is fortunate that his plans include Tonight bandleader Kevin Eubanks, the perfect professional partner for Jay and a popular personality in his own right.) While his new gig cannot be judged until advertisers and viewers see exactly what he does with it, it would seem that Leno will have to jettison some of the more juvenile comic elements of Tonight, which would likely grow old fast in a 10 p.m. showcase. The primetime audience is ferociously fickle, much more than the laid-back late-night crowd. Further, assuming he enjoys some momentum at the start of his primetime venture, Leno will have to place renewed emphasis on his selection of guests if he is going to maintain that momentum not simply from month to month, but from week to week and, for that matter, night to night. The competition is wicked at 10 p.m., especially on cable, and it will only increase in intensity next year once digital delivery is the norm.

All that said, there is something wildly exciting about this news, and there is no reason to assume that The Jay Leno Show, as the new project will likely be called, will not be successful on a number of levels. (Among other benefits, Friday night television may finally come alive.) NBC will reportedly save hundreds of millions of dollars in program development and production costs, and there will certainly be inventive new opportunities for advertisers in this plan. The idea of having a star-studded talk and variety show available as an alternative to dramatic programming (especially crime dramas) is not without its appeal (especially to those viewers who do not have insatiable appetites for crime dramas). Many years ago, when one of NBC’s competitors was as mired in last place as the Peacock has been of late, I suggested to its programming chief that a primetime talk show might be an effective alternative to its anemic scripted slate at least two or three nights a week. Said chief stared at me as if a third eye had suddenly appeared in the center of my forehead. Apparently I was ahead of my time.

There is much online chatter about how NBC’s affiliates will maximize this change. It appears that some of them may consider moving their 11 p.m. local newscasts to 10 p.m. and expanding them to one hour, and then run Jay Leno at 11 p.m. and The Tonight Show (with new host Conan O’Brien) at midnight. Others may choose to schedule repeats of old NBC sitcoms (such as Friends and Seinfeld) at 10 p.m., followed by their local news shows, Jay Leno and Tonight. The possibilities appear to be many and varied.

Another upside: If Jay Leno is a hit, its success may finally lay to rest the broadcast networks’ fears of showcasing “old” people as stars of their shows. After all, Leno will be pushing 60 when his new show makes its debut. Accordingly, baby boomers who suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of age discrimination, especially in the media and entertainment worlds, would be foolish not to support this experiment, at least at the start.

On the downside, if and when Leno runs out of gas, or if the viewing public for some reason chooses not to embrace his new show, NBC is going to find itself in an even more difficult position than it is at present. It is unlikely that the network could effectively revert back to scripted fare at 10 p.m. after working so hard to alter audience expectations and behaviors.

Come September, NBC will be producing and scheduling an unprecedented amount of nightly talk and variety programming. In most markets, The Jay Leno Show will (after a brief break for local news) be followed by The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Last Call with Carson Daly. That is a lot of talk and variety to sustain on a daily basis, and at first blush there would seem to be a sameness to it all that could prove tiresome. What a shame that there isn’t an African American or Hispanic host included in that lineup, not to mention (shudder) a woman! Even when a broadcast network excitingly breaks new ground it seems that some things never change.


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