A day or two ago, NBC officially decided to dump its 10 p.m. dramas five nights a week and slot a new Jay Leno show in their place. That marks the first time ever (or, at least, in a long time) that a variety talk show has occupied a network primetime slot. (Running a show every day is called "stripping" it.)
As I told LA's KNBC-TV Channel 4 on Monday night, the deal is a twofer for the network. They get to keep Leno in the family, rather than see him defect to a rival when Conan O'Brien takes over the Tonight Show next year. In addition, it allows the troubled network--number 4 in the primetime ratings overall--to shed five hours of scripted primetime. That saves the net a lot of money, since a week of Leno shows, even with his no doubt lucrative contract, are less expensive to produce than five hours of scripted content. It also lets the net sidestep the effects of labor unrest, since no scripted dramas means little exposure to a writers strike (such as occurred for part of the last 12 months) or a SAG strike (an unfortunate possibility for next year).
"Little exposure" is not no exposure, of course. The writers strike meant the talk shows had no writers to pen their hosts' opening monologues. It also meant that movie and TV stars, in solidarity with the writers, generally refused to appear on the talkers, driving down their ratings. Another boycott might occur next year if SAG strikes too, although it's far from certain, since some significant A-listers have come out strongly against a strike and might defy their union and appear on the shows.
Network scripted programming in general has been giving way to unscripted fare. Indeed, network television and cable seem to be exchanging their DNA, blurring the distinctions in the sort of content carried by each. A key reason is that scripted production on network television is subject to higher union minimums and residuals formulas than cable, particularly basic cable. It's also significant that cable is not subject to FCC regulation (whose reach extends only to terrestrial broadcast television), allowing for edgier fare.
As a result of these factors, plus a desire on the part of cable networks to differentiate themselves from each other, some scripted programming has moved to pay cable (HBO and Showtime) and, more recently, to basic cable (such as FX and AMC) as well. In turn, low-cost nonscripted fare, which in the guise of documentary-type programming has always been a staple of cable, has now migrated to network television in the form of reality TV and game shows, a development accelerated by the 2007-2008 writers' strike. Now Leno has barged in as well, diversifying the menu of non-scripted network primetime programming. This is likely to accelerate the migration of scripted programming to cable.
These changes mean less work available for SAG and Writers Guild members in particular. In addition, the new cable work that takes up some of the slack is lower-paying, in terms of both upfront fees and residuals. The unions aren't happy with this, but there's little they can do. Only AFTRA benefits to any extent, since some of the reality shows are under AFTRA jurisdiction (i.e., the hosts or celebrity judges may be AFTRA members).
Add to all this the competition that all television faces from the Internet, especially YouTube, and it's tough times for TV. Broadcast audiences are aging and advertisers are falling away due to the recession and, to some extent, the Internet. Observers agree that the business won't be the same five years from now, but no one's quite sure what it will look like. Leno's stripping, but the networks themselves may be losing their shirts.