Sunday, September 20, 2009

NBC Makes History with "The Tonight ...", er, I Mean "The Jay Leno Show" in Prime Time

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

If you tuned into the premiere episode of "The Jay Leno Show" on Monday (NBC, Mondays through Fridays, 10:00 p.m. Eastern), you might not have realized that you were witnessing a seminal moment in television history.

No, I don't mean the show itself. Despite a lot of claims to the contrary, "The Jay Leno Show" is essentially the "The Tonight Show," with some cosmetic changes thrown in to let the audience know it's nominally a new program: Leno and his guest sit in Tom Snyder-like easy chairs rather than the host taking the power position behind a desk. The stage is adjacent to the audience now, allowing crowd members to swarm Leno when he emerges to do his monologue. The set is a bit glitzier, as if it had to get gussied up for prime time. And the order of things is slightly mixed up (on Monday, "Headlines" was last, after the musical performance).

But, in substance, nothing has really changed from May when Leno bade farewell to "The Tonight Show." There is a monologue, regular comedy features (like "Headlines" and "Jaywalking"), celebrity guests and musical performances (Monday's music segment was really good, featuring Jay Z, Rihanna and Kanye West), and Kevin Eubanks continues to lead the band.

It seems unlikely to me that anyone who didn't like Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" will suddenly embrace his new prime time venture, nor do I think any of the comic's fans will like the 10:00 p.m. version of the program any less. It's not like the jokes are any different. If you thought Leno's "Tonight Show" monologues leaned too heavily on predictable shots at easy targets (as I did), then you will likely feel the same way about the opening of "The Jay Leno Show." If you found features like "Headlines" banal (as I did), nothing has changed just by moving the bit to the 10:00 p.m. hour. And if you weren't a fan of Leno's approach to interviews (as I wasn't), putting the guest in more comfortable seating likely won't change your mind.

That said, if you were a fan of "The Tonight Show," there is no reason you should be any less pleased with "The Jay Leno Show." "The Tonight Show" booked the most prestigious guests of any talk show on television (thanks to its L.A. location and solid ratings), and while CBS and ABC have banned their prime time stars from appearing on "The Jay Leno Show," the rule doesn't apply to A-list movie stars (like Tom Cruise and Halle Berry) and A-list comedians (like Jerry Seinfeld, all of whom appeared this week), so Leno will likely continue ruling the guest-booking roost. And if "The Jay Leno Show" is at all successful, we'll have to see if CBS and ABC stick to their guns, since they will be hard-pressed to turn down a chance to plug their programming on a prime time network platform, an opportunity that is not so easy to come by.

Really, the least interesting thing about the launch of "The Jay Leno Show" this week was the program itself. As I said, really, a review can be summed up in two sentences: If you liked "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, you'll like "The Jay Leno Show." If you didn't like "The Tonight Show" when Leno hosted it, then you won't like "The Jay Leno Show."

No, the real story is that with the 2009-2010 season bowing this week, we are experiencing what I think is the biggest single change in the structure of prime time network television since Fox cemented its status as a legitimate fourth network in 1993 by acquiring the rights to broadcast NFL football (and, as a result, adding to its affiliate roster nationally). Just as the ascension of Fox increased prime time network television real estate by nearly a third, NBC, by launching the nightly "Jay Leno Show," decreased its programming by nearly a quarter (abdicating five of the 22 hours a week it provides prime time coverage).

(You could argue that "Survivor" becoming a huge hit in 2000, ushering in the current era of reality programming, represented a seismic shift, but at the time "Survivor" hit the air, I don't think anyone knew it would mean the networks would flood their schedules with non-fiction programming, at the expense of dramas and comedies. And the FCC's 1995 repeal of its rule banning networks from owning shows led to a wholesale change in how programs are produced, but the rule change primarily affected the business side of the industry and was fairly transparent to the average TV viewer.)

Last year, when NBC announced that it had retained Leno by handing over the 10:00 p.m. weeknight block to him, it was shocking, and we knew it was a once-in-a-generation kind of change in television (I wrote about it here). But now it's not theoretical anymore. The moment has arrived. A talk show will now run five days a week in prime time. When you turn on NBC at 10:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, instead of a new drama (even though, according to Entertainment Weekly, 72 percent of new dramas launched between 2004 and 2008 did not make it to a second season anyway), or even a new reality show, it will be Leno, always Leno. Edgy one-hour dramas like "Southland" (which I reviewed positively in the spring) will have to try and make a go of it in a 9:00 p.m. slot -- and in the case of "Southland," on Fridays, rather than at 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays, where it aired last season, following NBC's demographically successful comedy block.

Sure, the move could be extremely profitable for NBC. Talk shows are dirt cheap to produce (even with a big star like Leno) compared to one-hour dramas, so "Leno" could make a ton of money at a ratings number that would get a program like "Southland" canceled instantly. And maybe there is more to it than the more-profit-for-less-viewers swap. Maybe NBC envisions a post-fiction television landscape in which the current trend toward fixating on celebrities (whether that means A-list stars or reality show creations) will only become more intense. Leno was always a go-to place for someone in the public eye to confront a scandal or problem (think Hugh Grant after getting busted for soliciting a hooker), and maybe, in prime time, this function will become even more prominent. Maybe NBC sees Leno as the prime time centerpiece of a new television era.

After all, on Leno's very first show, Kanye West talked about his "jackass" moment at the MTV Video Music Awards, a prime time platform for the rehabilitation of his public image. (I know some people thought Leno was too hard on West, but I didn't think he was at all. Although, I did think it was cheesy that Leno acted so sincerely with West on Monday and then made lame jokes at his expense in the next night's monologue.)

But the facts are the facts. With this move, NBC has essentially turned itself into a two-hour-a-night network (like Fox). And there is no way to get past the fact that NBC, which was a ratings juggernaut in the 1990s, but which fell to the bottom of the viewership battle in recent years, has essentially quit the race, leaving ABC, CBS and Fox to battle it out for eyeballs (at least when looking at the 10:00 p.m. block and, probably, the overall ratings, too). Such a decision not only radically changes the television landscape, but it will have a lasting imprint on NBC, especially as it tries to develop new programming (if you were a producer, would you want to work with NBC, knowing that there are five fewer hours a week available for your show compared to ABC and CBS?). NBC's decision to install Leno at 10:00 p.m. is huge, and the fallout -- expected and unexpected, positive and negative -- will no doubt shake out over the months and years to come.

For now, Leno fans will enjoy seeing him 90 minutes earlier, and those who don't find Leno funny will have to to look to NBC and CBS for network entertainment at 10:00 p.m. But all of us have witnessed a major change in how network television functions. And for anyone who enjoys scripted dramas and comedies (or even reality programs), it's certainly not a change for the better.