Usually the comment thread on a subject like this turns into a referendum on which late night personality people like best or hate most, spiked with the occasional person bragging that they don't watch TV at all.
I'd ask you to forget who you like or don't like for a moment and realize that everyone who currently hosts a late night TV show has their appeal to consistently large audience segments. The trick here is not to think like a fan but like a businessperson. By that standard, NBC's bold move of giving Jay Leno five nights a week in primetime is the smartest thing they've done in years. Here's why...
1) Less Programming Works, Higher Margins Are Better
For several years now, Fox has generally been the number one network. They have just two hours of programming per night and they don't seem to be in any hurry to add a third hour. Everyone considers them a broadcast network.
Less programming has worked to get Fox ratings but ratings aren't the only thing on NBC's mind. NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman recently described a strategy that is more based on profit margins then ratings. In other words, which would you rather have from a business perspective - the show with the higher ratings or the show that makes the most money?
Bear this idea of margins vs ratings in mind next time you hear Les Moonves brag that CSI will crush Leno. NBC may replace that Law And Order DA-WOOOOOOM sound with the sound of a cash register cha-ching.
2) Do What You Do Best
This is NBC playing to its obvious and entrenched strengths. The most two most profitable shows on NBC are The Today Show and The Tonight Show. These are decades old franchises that are as essential to the NBC brand as the Big Mac is to McDonald's or as Tide detergent is to P&G. If you want an equivalent show at another network in terms of brand importance, it's probably 60 Minutes at CBS. Of course, CBS tried to clone 60 Minutes a few years ago and it only proved it's a very hard show to clone, especially when you've decimated the news department.
Putting Leno in at 10pm allows NBC to double down on The Tonight Show. In name, there will only be one Tonight Show and Conan will be hosting it. The prime time Leno show won't be exactly the same show but it's really as close to a viable clone of a show that already works as one can imagine. If this move works, when Jay does decide to retire don't be surprised if Conan ends up in the prime time slot.
3) Jay Leno At ABC Would Have Been A Disaster For NBC
Here was the scenario NBC was facing and it wasn't pretty. It's Fall 2009. Jay has been sent packing and he's moved two blocks down Alameda Avenue to the Disney lot at ABC. (There have been whispered rumors in Burbank for months now that a stage there was already being readied for Jay.) Now, it's Conan on NBC vs. Dave on CBS vs. Jay on ABC.
This would have been a dream scenario for Leno and ABC and a nightmare for NBC. Speaking broadly, Jay's appeal is more working class and plays to middle of the country. Conan and Dave play to roughly the same audience - people on the coasts with a taste for smart alec, frat boy humor..
The Leno audience would follow him to ABC while Letterman and Conan split Letterman's current audience, which is already smaller to begin with. In this case, Leno's audience lead over Letterman would actually grow and Conan and The Tonight Show franchise would end up in third place. There's a vicious cycle here, as the larger Leno audience allows it better leverage to book guests. Any celebrities doing the media rounds in California would have had to choose whether their limo stops at number one Leno or down the street with number three Conan.
Now, the lose-lose for NBC is avoided. Moving Leno to Conan's early lead-in will create a stronger Conan Tonight Show by allowing him the breathing room to adjust to the earlier time slot and build his own audience. (Probably won't be seeing the masturbating bear as much.)
4) No Drama Leno Is A Good Guy To Be In Business With
This move makes NBC more immune to the cutthroat contract drama and infighting that often ends up happening on scripted series - particularly those one hour dramas that are usually in the 10pm time slot. You know the scenario - a show gets big in the ratings and the actors all want more money, eventually driving the production costs through the roof. Even casual TV viewers hear about stories from shows like Desperate Housewives or CSI or ER or...almost any of them, really.
Jay Leno is about as drama free as you'll find in the entertainment industry. He's well known for not having an agent or manager and he negotiates his own contracts by going into the room with executives and walking out with a deal. In the press conference on Wednesday, Leno made it clear that he's not interested in trying to be the best compensated person in show business because he feels he already makes a great living. The Big Three Automakers CEOs could take more than one lesson from Leno, including the one about driving themselves to work.
5) It's A Chance For Jay 2.0
One interesting possibility of the show is that it gives Leno and NBC a way to get a little viral video street cred. The topical nature of the show is part of this but I think it really depends on how much Leno and his staff decide to experiment.
Leno said Wednesday that the format of the 10pm show would be different from the The Tonight Show format but he wasn't sure in what way yet. One smart tactic would be to follow the lead of Saturday Night Live's 'Digital Short' series, which has spawned viral video hits like Lazy Sunday, Dick In A Box, and the latest Genitals-In-Something themed sensation Jizz In My Pants. If Leno can get a team or two of talented, hungry young video comedians and give them a little bit of free reign to create original pieces, he could not only create a new 'must see' segment but also start to generate internet buzz in the way that segments like Jaywalking aren't able to do - that is if NBC lets anything go viral beyond their own Hulu service.
So there you have it. Now feel free to jump into comments and say you hate Dave or that Conan isn't funny or that you don't watch Leno or that you don't understand how anyone can stand Jimmy Kimmel or why didn't I even mention Craig Ferguson!?! That's what comments are for...
(Full disclosure : Lee Stranahan works at NBC as a graphic artist, which means nobody there is particularly interested in his opinion on much of anything. The opinions expressed are solely his and not that of his employer, their parent company, the megacorporation that owns the parent company or Marianna at the commissary.)