Has NBC just unleashed a ratings juggernaut that crushes week rivals and boosts the network out of a profound ratings slump? Or a cannibal that devours NBC's own young? Or both? The network's Tuesday announcement that Jay Leno will move into prime time next year is an intriguing move with a potentially huge impact -- for good or for ill.
Leno, who was weighing offers to jump to other networks after his not-exactly-voluntary departure from The Tonight Show scheduled for next May, instead will take over NBC's 10 p.m. time slot five nights a week -- network television's first foray into prime-time talk in more than 40 years.
The deal extricates NBC from a disastrous dilemma -- contracts with two extraordinarily talented hosts who wanted the same job. After an initial dip in the ratings when he took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson in 1992, Leno has dominated the late-night scene, averaging about 800,000 viewers a night more than either CBS rival David Letterman or ABC's news show Nightline.
But Conan O'Brien, host of the show that's followed Tonight for the past 15 years, has been impatient to move into the more lucrative 11:30 p.m. time slot. Anxious to keep the younger O'Brien (he's 45, Leno is 58), NBC four years ago coaxed Leno into agreeing to retire in 2009 and hand Tonight over to O'Brien.
Leno never seemed happy about the agreement, and as the date for his departure got closer, it was increasingly obvious that his "retirement" would be from NBC, not late-night TV. Most devastatingly, Leno talked to ABC about replacing Nightline with a talk show that would compete with -- and probably crush -- Tonight, crippling a program that's been practically minting money for NBC since the late 1950s.
That's the immediate and obvious upside of the deal announced Tuesday: Leno won't be competing with NBC. And he could breathe new life into NBC's prime time performance. The network's schedule, a patchwork of aging warhorses like E.R. and inane remakes like Knight Rider, is running a ragged fourth. New ideas are in such short supply that network boss Jeff Zucker earlier this week suggested NBC cut back on its programming, giving back hours or even whole nights to its affiliates to fill with game shows and reruns.
Leno's new show -- which is expected to pretty closely resemble Tonight, a pastiche of stand-up comedy and celebrity interviews -- will be a prime-time novelty that might really take off, particularly in the tepid 10 p.m. time slot. (There hasn't been a talk show during network prime time since NBC canceled The Jack Paar Show in 1965.) Once the home of network's television strongest shows, intended to draw strong audiences as lead-ins to local news, the 10 p.m. hour has stagnated in recent years.
Though some of CBS' 10 p.m. crime procedurals have superficially decent numbers -- CSI: Miami, for instance, averages 14.7 viewers -- they're much weaker in the 18-to-49 age bracket that that advertisers like. More typically, 10 p.m. dramas pull in around 10 million viewers, and they're extremely expensive to make.
Even if Leno's show just draws a typical 10 p.m. audience, NBC will count it as a spectacular success, because it costs next to nothing to produce. But the network thinks it can do even better. In fact, NBC regards Leno as such a strong competitor that it wanted him to do the show at 8 p.m., leading off its lineup every night. Leno declined; he thinks of himself as a late-night guy, even if not quite so late as before.
And that's precisely the potential downside to all this. What if Leno's audience from Tonight simply moves with him to 10 p.m. and then goes to bed after the local news? NBC executives expect the opposite -- that Leno's show will be a kind of indirect lead-in for The Tonight Show viewers, who will simply keep their TVs tuned to the same station through the local news and then into Conan O'Brien's opening monologue. Maybe. But I won't be surprised if O'Brien's most potent competition comes from the guy he replaced.