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Report: NBC May Send Jay Walking

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[Update: TMZ is reporting that Jay will move back to 11:30. See my separate post above.]

A TV-industry-news website, FTVLive.com (subscription required), is reporting that there are high-level talks going on at NBC over whether to drop The Jay Leno Show. The report is headlined “NBC to Pull the Plug on Leno,” and has been picked up thus elsewhere. But the reporter of the story, as you can hear in this podcast, is actually saying that NBC execs are split into factions over whether to stick with Jay, or whether to drop his low-rated talk show—perhaps as soon as after the Olympics. Reason: Jay’s hurting affiliates and other NBC shows, and NBC’s beancounters say he’s not making (or saving, with his show’s low costs) enough money to make him worth it.

[Update: NBC issued a statement that Leno is performing “exactly as we expected”—though it would only really be news if NBC didn’t issue such a statement.]

I have no prediction as to what will happen. But if NBC repudiates its big primetime experiment so suddenly and totally, it could, ironically, be as big a risk or bigger than putting Jay on in the first place.

Consider: pulling Jay altogether—on a network that is not doing well in other time slots either and has more changes to make—would basically amount to calling a do-over on the whole network. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) And doing it in the space of a couple months in midseason would be a switcheroo like we’ve never seen a major network pull on short notice outside a strike.

Sure, NBC could fill Jay’s time with something: midseason replacements, shows in development, reality, newsmagazines, reruns of shows from sister cable networks, and so on. (Personally, I’d love to see Friday Night Lights come back earlier.) But if it replaces him suddenly, with cheap shows, it could do even worse. If it replaces him suddenly, with more-expensive shows, it could do no better, but for a lot more money—in the process, possibly sinking promising new shows that are rushed to air.

For that reason I’d be surprised to see them pull the plug suddenly—but then I was surprised when they gave him the show. (One mild prediction: at this point I don’t think they dump Conan for him on the Tonight Show regardless. Whatever Conan’s problems, he has years to build, whereas at this point, even if Leno were to bring a lot of old viewers back, NBC can only see him as having downside in the years ahead. Update: And naturally, if TMZ’s report is correct, my only prediction may well be wrong.)

Ultimately, if Jay goes and whenever he goes, an equally interesting question will be what NBC replaces him with in the long run. Will the network, which is in fourth place and has averred that it can not afford to program as lavishly as it used to, stock up on reality shows instead? Will it turn back the clock to 10 p.m. scripted shows and pray that they can self-start, with an incredibly weakened lineup behind them?

You got me. Either way, Jay Leno’s mission as a business proposition was, essentially, to downsize the network. One way or another, downsizing accomplished.