Tuned In

Is Leno a Success or Failure? And How Do You Tell?

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A month into his run on the air, it’s about the time for observers to start weighing in on NBC’s Great Leno Experiment at 10 p.m. But as I alluded to the other day, the problem is determining what constitutes success and failure for The Jay Leno Show. Since it is a cost-containment measure before anything, it can’t be judged by the same ratings standards as the much more expensive dramas it replaced. On the other hand, since it occupies a third of prime-time, its success or failure extends far beyond its own numbers to its possible effect on NBC, and its affiliates as a whole.

In the New York Times, late-night guru Bill Carter takes a stab at it. And while he finds pros and cons, he sees some ominous signs.

On the plus side, The Jay Leno Show itself seems to be doing as expected in the ratings. (Itself a hard number to nail down, but talking to people outside NBC this summer, the consensus seemed to be that a decent performance would be slightly above his ratings in late-night, which, depending on the night, is around what he’s done so far.) Also, Carter notes, Leno has come close to or even with ABC several nights—for far less money—when expectations were he would consistently finish third against originals.

On the other hand, NBC overall is not looking good, and we have to ask if Leno’s show is part of the reason. The network has no new hits this fall (Community has done decently but no great shakes, and its rating has fallen). Old shows like the Law & Order franchise are declining. Oh, yeah, and Letterman has been breathing down Conan O’Brien’s neck in the advertising demo—which may not be Leno’s fault but at minimum Leno’s show does not appear to be helping.

But the stat that should be scariest for NBC is this: “Among the top 15 cities in the country, ratings for the late news — a prime source of revenue for local television — are down 10 to 30 percent.” The reason: if NBC is basically using Leno to downsize itself, and is willing to take lower ratings as part of a strategic retreat, fine. But if it seriously threatens a lot of affiliates’ cash-cow local news, all hell could break loose. If some major affiliates start threatening to move their news to 10 p.m., there could be a domino effect. When a Boston station threatened to do that last spring, NBC threatened to pull its affiliation. But what if several stations go into revolt, and call its bluff?

The real problem with assessing the situation are the big unprovables: namely, would NBC be doing any better without Jay? Its two fall dramas, Trauma and Mercy, were bombs at a much higher price tag, as was pretty much every drama the network launched last season. Would NBC be doing any better with dramas at 10? (As Carter points out, ABC’s new dramas in the hour have been bombs.) Leno posts his highest numbers when he has a strong lead-in, and it says everything you need to know about NBC that his strongest lead-in has been The Biggest Loser on Tuesdays.

Would a stronger show than Leno lift the rest of NBC’s schedule, or would a better 8-10 p.m. schedule lift Jay? More unprovables. Arguably, NBC’s problem is also, or even more so, everything it’s tried to launch besides Leno.

If NBC’s ultimate strategy is basically corporate rightsizing—trying to find a way to exist in an era of smaller numbers, possibly in preparation for a sale—then these may be part of the growing pains. Right now, NBC has no choice anyway but to be patient. The best news for Leno right now may be that his network has too many other problems to worry about.