Friday, December 12, 2008

Is Leno's Move to Prime Time Good for Television?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

In a recent profile of Robert Downey Jr. in Entertainment Weekly, the writer noted that smoking cigarettes was one of Downey's last vices. My reaction was, “Well, smoking is bad for him, but it beats him doing heroin.” That story came to mind when I heard about NBC’s plan to hand it’s weeknight 10 p.m. slot over to Jay Leno.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should first admit that I am not a fan of Leno or his version of “The Tonight Show.” I find his monologue jokes obvious and, even worse, not funny. I think his “Jaywalking” segments, in which he asks people on the street questions in order to laugh at them when they demonstrate ignorance, is mean-spirited and more sad than funny. And I'm not a fan of Leno's interviews, which can feel impersonal at times.

But my feelings about NBC’s move have nothing to do with my opinion of Leno or his show. “The Tonight Show” and its star are unquestionably popular, earning high ratings in the late-night slot, beating the far superior (in my opinion) David Letterman. And as a fan of late night talk shows (I like both Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien, although I think Conan is a bad fit for the “Tonight Show” desk, but that's a discussion for another day), I certainly have no inherent problem with the genre.

So why is NBC turning over five hours a week to Leno like a drug addict smoking cigarettes? I'm getting there.

Back in February, I wrote about how the short-sighted approach taken by networks was eroding the traditional bond between the medium of television and its viewers. How nickel-and-diming the writers into a strike, as well as the practice of employing a quick hook on low-rated new shows and the substitution of mediocre cheap reality programs for underperforming quality scripted offerings, demonstrated a practice of maximizing short-term profit at the expense of the long-term health of the industry.

Moving Leno to 10:00 p.m. checks many of the same boxes as dropping reality shows onto a schedule. NBC knows that the ratings for the talk show many not be as high as some of their scripted offerings. After all, at 11:35, Leno draws less than five million people. But like reality fare, a program like "The Tonight Show" is far less expensive to produce than a scripted series, even with the host's sky-high salary. Multiply that by five, and you can see that NBC will be saving a boatload of money in production costs. That lowers the bar for the ratings. Leno doesn't have to be an "American Idol"-level smash to succeed. In fact, the show can finish third in its slot and still be hugely profitable.

But on its face, the decision to fill five hours of prime time with a talk show, possibly the hardest five hours to fill with a hit (staying up to 11 p.m. is past some people's bed times), is a blow to scripted programming. That is potentially five fewer dramas (or ten fewer sitcoms) on the air, which, in turn, means that many fewer writing staffs, casts and production crews. And, even more importantly, that is five fewer hours that a new generation of television watchers will expect scripted storytelling. With the networks having experienced a huge drop off in ratings in the last ten years in the face of challenges from cable, the Internet and other distractions, every little surrender like this one just further pushes television away from its past special place in the living rooms of Americans.

But when you look at what NBC could have done, suddenly the decision to turn the 10 p.m. block over to Leno is more like Downey smoking cigarettes rather than doing heroin. Why? Well, it could have been much worse. NBC could have filled the time period with nonsense reality programs like "The Biggest Loser." Or worse, the network could have fallen back on past vices and gone with episodes of exploitative inanity like "Dateline: To Catch a Predator." While Leno's prime-time version of the "Tonight Show" won't help NBC build loyalty with its viewers (I don't see a daily Leno offering being appointment, TiVo-Season-Pass-inspiring television), at least the network is choosing to showcase a genuine star in a proven format with a built-in audience.

And in the world of modern network television, especially with the inability of the networks to consistently turn new programs into hits ("The Mentalist" is the only debut show this season that can truly be termed a hit), "it could have been worse" is actually not too bad.

But will this be a trend? Will we soon see CBS moving Ferguson to 11:35 p.m. and Letterman to 10:00 p.m.? It would certainly save money, but CBS has its share of hits at 10:00 p.m. (although with demographics that skew geriatric). Could this inspire ABC to jump into the 10:00 p.m. slot with a talk show, either using its existing late night guy, Jimmy Kimmel, or luring a bigger name to go to war with Leno? (Fox and the CW do not program after 10:00 p.m., so they would not be able to directly compete at that hour without a change in arrangements with their affiliates.) Given Leno's strength as the premier brand in the late-night talk genre, it's doubtful that it would happen right away. But if Leno generates better-than-expected ratings at 10 p.m., and, as a result, NBC makes piles of cash, you can be sure that the other networks will be looking to replicate the formula for themselves.

So I have mixed feelings about NBC's groundbreaking new strategy. But when Leno's show hits the air next season, I will keep telling myself that at least nobody on the screen is trying to win a contest to lose the most weight.