Oookay, this is just slightly jaw-dropping: NBC is on the verge of handing over the 10 p.m. timeslot, Monday to Friday, to Jay Leno. Some thoughts on the most unexpected chapter of the ongoing late-night wars -- or, in this case, primetime wars -- coming up after the jump...
I've been on record as saying that NBC was making a bad business decision to push Jay out the door so the could give "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien. Even though I vastly prefer Conan's show, Jay is a proven commodity, a rare broadcast star in an age of ever-tighter narrowcasting. All along, NBC executives insisted they had a plan to somehow keep Jay in the fold even while giving his job to Conan, but I don't think anyone suspected they had something this radical in mind -- not even after Jeff Zucker said earlier today that he could envision a future where NBC programmed fewer hours per week in primetime.
Now, if the Leno deal happens (seems likely), and if he can bring his audience with him to primetime on a nightly basis (a big if), this could be a masterstroke by NBC. They keep Jay away from the competition, and they have fixed programming in the 10 p.m. hour, where they've been struggling recently, and where the networks have been struggling in general of late, since studies have shown that DVR users tend to use the hour to watch shows they recorded earlier in the evening. A Leno primetime show (shot in the traditional Burbank studio, but with a different name) with a stable audience would also be good news for the NBC affiliates, who make a good chunk of their money on the late local newscast. And even though Jay doesn't work cheap, I imagine that five nights of his show will still cost less than five nights worth of dramas.
But will people watch what sounds like it will basically be the Leno version of "Tonight" when it's on 90 minutes earlier, before it's time to get ready for bed? DVRs have rendered timeslots meaningless in many ways, but the late night shows seem more habit-driven than most. And does still having Jay on, doing more or less the show he's been doing for almost 20 years, in any way neuter Conan's big promotion to the 11:35 slot?
Whether it works or not, this feels like the latest in a long line of decisions by Zucker and Ben Silverman that are entirely about their failure as actual entertainment programmers. If Silverman had developed a single scripted success in his time at the helm, or if Silverman hadn't spent all his time either buying shows from his own production company or trying to recreate the NBC fall lineup circa 1983, then 10 o'clock wouldn't be such a disaster that they would need to plug Jay in five nights a week to potentially save their hash. This is yet another move along the lines of super-sized "Friends" or two-hour "Celebrity Apprentice." Even if it works, it's a Band-Aid on a very deep wound.