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Jay Gets Bigger, NBC Gets Smaller

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Paul Drinkwater

NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater



Jay Leno, apparently, is not going anywhere, but NBC is downsizing. 

Just after NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker raised speculation that NBC may look to reduce the number of nights it programs per week, the New York Times reports that NBC will give Leno a nightly show at 10 p.m. E.T., probably starting next fall.

Ideally, this move would kill more than two birds with one stone for NBC. Let’s count them, shall we?

The bird that will get the most attention at first, but is in the long run less important, is What to Do About Jay. Leno remains a big star, and NBC had been criticized for letting him go—to give Conan O’Brien the Tonight Show slot—because of the possibility he might move on to compete for another network. Possibility eliminated.

Bird two: NBC programming chief Ben Silverman, and Zucker before him, have been almost wholly unable to develop new hit shows. Since Friends went off the air there, it’s been like the dinosaur die-off,  with the occasional minor light like The Office, or Heroes, before it lost its viewers. Leno would relieve NBC of the responsibility to program at 10 p.m., period—a time when network hits have been few and cable networks have stepped in. Fewer slots to fill, fewer bombs to embarrass you. 

[Update: This move, if it goes through, is pure Zucker, by the way. He’s never been able to develop programming. His skill is redeploying assets someone else created. Thus the supersized Friends, the third and fourth hour of the Today show and so forth. If Zucker hangs around long enough at NBC U, the ever-growing Today show and the metastasizing late-night block will eventually meet at about 3 in the afternoon—like the two halves of the Transcontinental Railroad joining together—and NBC will have only one show, which will run 24 hours a day with local-news breaks.]

Bird three, and probably the most significant: NBC, like the other big networks—and other big media, including newspapers and magazines—simply has to learn to get smaller. Think of it as de-leveraging, network-style. In an environment of cable,  fewer viewers per network and less easily-found revenue, mounting big-budget entertainment three hours a night is less and less viable.

Will Leno draw hit numbers at 10? Doubtful. A late-night audience of five million would be paltry in prime-time, and even if he pulls slightly more, that won’t be a blockbuster number. [Oh, and there’s always the possibility he could pull even less.] But it won’t need to be. As Bill Carter points out in the New York Times, Leno’s show would be much cheaper than a scripted drama, even with his big salary. So the viewer bar is lower. 

But with these birds killed, other birds will spring up in their place. For instance: if Jay is NBC’s new pre-late-night host (um, medium-night host?), and, as Maureen Ryan points out, trying to book the same guests as Conan—then what does that make Conan, who’s now still following Leno (with a break for local news)? Is Conan still the New Jay, or now, in hierarchy, the New Old Conan? Is Jimmy Fallon no longer the New Conan but the new Carson Daly? Is Carson Daly the new Poker After Dark? 

There’s the open question of how Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the rest of the TV business will take the move. Does it look visionary, or smack of desperation? (Can’t it be both?) Silverman and Zucker, one would imagine, must be running out of excuses to send upstairs at GE. 

There’s also the question of general viewership against the competition. The fact is, Jay Leno will lose NBC viewers compared with, say, an ER. [The old successful ER, anyway.] You could argue, in fact, that, in a way, that is exactly the point. This is a move to transition NBC to the smaller-big-network era. Yeah, there will be a lot of buzz about how this is a radical act for a new TV era. But Leno himself is not going to get any more exciting or funny at 10 p.m. than he was at 11:35. People like me will not stick around to watch Jay every night. But guess what? We were being lost anyway, to shows on FX or Comedy Central or NBC’s sister network Bravo—if not to things besides TV altogether.

This is where Jay is like de-leveraging in the economy. He’s a means of making NBC smaller, quickly but stably—ushering it into the age of diminished expectations, to the smaller 10 p.m. audience networks are going to have anyway, but doing so in a way where (a) the fall-off won’t be disastrous and (b) the balance sheet makes sense. That’s the dream, anyway.

The question—one of many unanswerables this move will raise—is whether ABC and CBS will follow suit in some way, or counterprogram and try to reap some reward. A lot of birds will be disturbed by NBC’s stone-throw here. But it looks like they think it may be the only way to save a Peacock.