The Jay Leno Show debuts tonight at 10, and with it begins the biggest gamble in TV in years. In my cover story, I said he and his show would represent the (downsized, cheaper) future of TV whether it succeeded or failed.* Which is just as well, because I absolutely suck at predicting whether anything will succeed or fail.
*(NBC, of course, has set the bar for “succeed” very low, but even if he saves money I have to imagine getting no more viewers than he did at 11:30 would be a disappointment.)
I can see as many reasons why Jay’s new show will be a hit as I can reasons why it will be a historic bomb. Let’s run some down:
Pro: People Loved Jay at 11:30. Critics never liked Leno as well as Letterman, and have long discounted his appeal. That didn’t stop him from winning 15 of 17 years in late night. He has a big fan base in Middle America who may have been waiting all sumer for him to come back—and may watch him more often than they did on Tonight, because it’s earlier.
Con: People Loved Jay—at 11:30. Late night is nothing if not a thing of habit. Leno and the Tonight Show benefited for years from being part of a decades-old bedtime ritual. There is, for most TV watchers, no similar ritual of watching the same show every night at 10. And building such a habit, overnight from scratch, is extremely tough—especially since it requires breaking a habit of watching dramas at 10. And I think NBC has underestimated the context question—that people have certain expectations of primetime, which may make a Tonight-like production look cheap.
Pro: Jay Is Counterprogramming for CBS. You’ve heard the argument: everywhere else on the dial (at least on broadcast networks), dark crime dramas dominate 10 p.m. Leno will own the comedy niche by himself in the hour. Just because NBC has been flogging the argument doesn’t mean it might not just be true.
Con: Jay Is Counterprogramming for CBS. Jay’s audience is an older, Middle American audience that likes old-fashioned TV. So is CBS’s. And that audience already likes CBS at 10. Why would they switch over? (At least after this week, once CBS is in originals.) Furthermore, it could be that any viewers he does poach will be 50-plus, who are all but invisible to advertisers setting commercial rates.
Pro: It Could Be Funny and Original! No, hear me out. I know that The Jay Leno Show will be bookended by material that is basically the Tonight Show (a monologue, and bits like Jaywalking). But Jay can’t carry five nights of comedy himself, so he’s staffed up with young comedy “correspondents.” If his staff is really talented, and they get free rein, they could turn the show into something fresh.
Con: There’s Not Much Evidence of That So Far. What we have heard about The Jay Leno Show thus far is not exactly gut-busting: a celebrity “green car challenge” and a segment involving teaching old people about Twitter, for instance.
Pro: It’s Not a Show, It’s a Time Slot. Say the show stinks from the get-go. It’s not like a TV drama, written into a particular premise and storyline. An hour comedy-variety show can be a lot of things, and assuming NBC has the patience—given the commitment they’ve bought into, they’ll have to have it—a nimble staff of writers could retool the refocus the show on the fly as they see what works and doesn’t.
Con: He’s Only Got One Chance. Primetime is not late night. The sense in the industry of success or failure sets in in weeks, not years. Conan O’Brien can run through a rough patch, as Jay did, with the relative assurance that he’ll get a long run to turn things around, and people understand he’s going to be there. But supposing Jay gets a huge tune-in this week (by the way—he’d better), then his ratings nosedive like Katie Couric’s after her debut. Fair or not, the stench of failure will gather quickly. Viewers will have formed their first impressions and move on. The bad publicity will spread fast, making watching the show seeming that much more sad and unappealing. And most of all: there comes a tipping point where affiliates, taking a hit on their 11:00 news, start doing what Boston’s station threatened—moving their news to 10:00. Once that starts, it could snowball.
I have no idea which scenario will win out, but the more I think about it, the more I think that Jay is either going to do shockingly well (by which I mean, say, regularly finishing second) or flame out—and by extension, NBC with him—in a way that will be lengthy, excruciating and fascinating to watch unfold.
Which, of course, probably means neither will happen, and he’ll muddle along somewhere in the middle. Your predictions?