Commentary: NBC's ready for 10 p.m. monologues, no matter who else is

Jay Leno's primetime move makes industry waves

For once the buzz this week in Tinseltown was not dominated by recession-driven cutbacks at the studios or a possible work stoppage by actors. It was the announcement by NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker that Jay Leno would stay at the Peacock after all and strut his stuff in primetime rather than in late-night. Just a 90-minute jump on the competition in a world of TV scheduling moves that even those programmers who make them say are becoming irrelevant in our time-shifted, pluri-platform universe.

And yet most everyone seemed to think that the move was monumentally emblematic of something. Something more, that is, than the talk-show host getting $30-odd million a year for coming up with a few new tricks a little bit earlier every night.

Not since a.m. darling Jane Pauley was knocked off her "Today Show" perch almost 20 years ago in favor of upstart Deborah Norville has there been so much pontification about a nonprimetime daypart. (OK, "The View" gets its share, but that's more about the on-camera bickering than anything else.)

The late-night ratings leader in primetime is clearly a big deal for those who still care about what broadcast primetime is and all those who will be directly or indirectly impacted. Think regular folks for a minute, those whose in-home entertainment rhythms were set in the Johnny Carson era and have largely consisted of watching a 10 p.m. drama (which have, this past decade, been of consistently high quality), local newscasts (which have, by and large, devolved into inanity) and then a late-night host.

I count myself among those who like to laugh before going to bed. Laughing earlier? I don't know.

First reactions from papers, the blogosphere, entertainment newsmagazines, industry panels and even investment conferences were all over the map: "Just one more act of desperation on the part of NBC," or "One of the more inspired, out-of-the-box moves we've seen in a long time." And every nuance in between.

Ad agency execs applauded the move as savvy counterprogramming that would capture a younger demo and many more eyeballs; a few financial types praised the cost-effectiveness of the shift; scripted drama writers and producers were either irked or simply resigned to the slot loss, though most declined to say so in print.

Leno himself used the announcement as fodder for his monologue: "A lot of people were shocked," he joked Tuesday night. "They didn't know NBC still had a primetime."

Writers on an HRTS panel Tuesday in Los Angeles dissed NBC as no longer worthy of full network status, ticking off the sorry state of the net's fall sked and the near-wholesale dismissal of its production hierarchy last week. "It's no longer the Big Four networks but at best the 3.5," one quipped.

"There's blood seeping into the sewers of Bob Hope Drive," intoned panel moderator Peter Tolan, who obviously has a taste for the macabre -- and whose "Rescue Me" airs safely on FX.

Even rival Leslie Moonves couldn't resist a comment, telling the same media conference Zucker addressed Monday that to his mind, the Eye will be a big beneficiary of the Leno leap of faith.

"I'm here to tell you the model ain't broken," the CBS Corp. CEO said Wednesday at the UBS gathering in New York. "You can still make a lot of money in network television. We like 10 o'clock shows."

Currently, CBS wins four of those five nights with its 10 p.m. dramas.

"I will bet anybody that 'CSI: Miami' on Monday night at 10 o'clock will beat Jay by a lot. Remember that -- by a lot."

Others, however, were quick to come to Zucker's defense, praising the exec's decisiveness in dealing with the economic downturn and his company's woes by being innovative and cost-conscious at the same time.

"I find it a bold, future-forward move," Starcom ad buyer Laura Caraccioli-Davis said.

The NBC chieftain has been at pains this year to say that the network model is broken and that the Peacock will be in the vanguard of those trying to reinvent it.

So far, few of those efforts -- including a lesser reliance on piloted series and a greater reliance on imported formats -- have panned out.

One of the net's key drama hits, "Heroes," is losing steam; stalwart "ER" still has life but is in its final season. Dick Wolf's two "Law & Order" series (the third, "Criminal Intent," airs on USA) have come out of the network box smartly this season, but they too are getting long in the tooth. The net's two freshmen drama hopefuls in the hour, "Lipstick Jungle" and "My Own Worst Enemy," already have been axed.

The rationale for the Leno move seems plausible enough: to keep the late-night host from "jay walking" over to ABC or Fox and to lessen the Peacock's dependence on those costly hour series.

No one denies that Leno makes a lot of upfront money for the network; successful dramas, though, have a backend in DVD sales, a syndication/cable window and foreign license fees, so it's not as simple a switch-out as it looks.

If the expensive "ER" still pulls in 10 million viewers every Thursday, for example, how many viewers will the more cost-effective Leno (which currently attracts 4.8 million) have to pull in to even the performance? And so on for each night.

In any case, despite all the ink that's been spilled, it's impossible to know whether the move will work until it's in place for a while.

And even then, it'll be kinda like the war in Iraq: How, with all the other changes likely to come, will we know whether we've won or not -- and who will care what we've lost?
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