Jay Leno, five nights a week at 10 p.m.: smart move by NBC, or an act of desperation?
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Jim Tellus, general manager of WTHR (Channel 13), which will inherit Leno as the Monday-through-Friday lead-in for his late news beginning next fall.
Meanwhile, the collective reaction from his counterparts at Indianapolis' ABC, CBS and Fox stations can be best summed up like this: Bring him on.
Last week's announcement - that NBC would give its premier late-night host the final hour of prime time - filled Don Lundy at WRTV (Channel 6), Jeff White at WISH (Channel 8) and Jerry Martin at WXIN (Channel 59) and WTTV (Channel 4) with some amount of glee.
And why not? The deal looks great for the network, but it's potentially disastrous for Channel 13 and NBC's other local stations.
For NBC, Leno will fill five hours of programming each week with a show that costs a fraction of a program like "ER" - even while paying the host $20 million or $30 million a year. Leno also will provide 46 weeks of programming, rather than the usual 22-24 for network dramas. To put it another way, he'll fill more than 10 times the number of hours that "ER" would at around a third of the total cost, if that, over a year.
No one knows how well Leno will be received five nights a week in prime time, but the ratings don't have to be spectacular for his show to be a moneymaker. NBC stands to make a beautiful dollar.
Local stations, not so much. Leno may cost the network significantly less money, but if his audience is smaller than a typical drama might attract - which seems highly likely - the local stations are the ones who suffer.
What most everyone expects to happen is this: Leno's opening monologue will draw viewers - maybe even in significant numbers. But as WISH G.M. White points out, there just aren't that many compelling talk show guests to fill five nights of prime-time programming each week. So the audience will likely flip, either to scripted shows on ABC and CBS, the local news on Fox or somewhere else on the dial.
By the time the 11 o'clock news begins, WTHR and other NBC stations will have to figure out some way to bring viewers back. They need those eyes: Fewer viewers at 11 means lower advertising rates and, therefore, less income for the stations. (Tellus said NBC has asked local affiliates to recommend ways for Leno to end his show with the momentum they need.)
Tellus said local stations have been begging NBC to do something to shore up the programming at 10 p.m. Five nights of Leno may not have been what they had in mind, but looking at the NBC lineup, you can understand why they wanted something. This week, NBC filled, or is filling, 10 o'clock with the already canceled "My Own Worst Enemy" (Monday), the new reality show "Momma's Boys" (Tuesday), the nearly spent "Law & Order" (Wednesday), two reruns of "The Office" (Thursday) and "Dateline" (Friday).
That's two nights of abysmal programming followed by three nights of barely acceptable options.
Maybe Leno can change viewers' habits. Maybe they'll watch his show and then the late news before going to sleep. (That wouldn't be good for Conan O'Brien, who takes over "The Tonight Show" from Leno in May. But that's another story.) The TV landscape has changed enormously in the 21st century, and who says it won't change again?
Then again, as the other general managers say, it's entirely possible that viewers won't want to tune in to the same format five nights a week. As WRTV G.M. Lundy points out, remember what happened when ABC tried to air "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" three or four nights a week? It took less than a season to kill what had been a prime-time juggernaut. It's not must-see TV when it's on every night.
Leno will likely turn into default television - something to watch if you don't like the dramas on ABC and CBS or the 10 p.m. news on Fox. It puts some pressure on the other networks to deliver compelling programming at 10, but it also gives them a great opening to steal viewers who don't want comedy at that hour.
Of course, there's more to this move, both good and bad: If NBC needs to bump Leno for sports or breaking news, no big deal. There's another show the next night. Pre-empting Leno's show won't upset the viewers the way they're aggravated when their favorite drama is taken off the schedule for a week.
NBC also kept Leno from jumping to ABC, where he might have made life miserable as competition for Conan.
On the downside for NBC, filling five more hours of its prime-time lineup with unscripted programming suggests to the world that the network has lost its way creatively. Fox G.M. Martin thinks writers and producers will be less likely to bring their projects to NBC, which, between Leno and all its unscripted programming ("Biggest Loser," "Deal or No Deal," "Sunday Night Football"), appears to have little interest in comedies and dramas.
But given the way NBC executives have programmed the network lately, the only things they seem to be interested in are making money and preserving their jobs.