NBC's Leno leap creates industry ripples

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NBC's decision to move Jay Leno to primetime drew a mixed reception from industry observers Tuesday.

As Peacock executives made the case for clearing its 10 p.m. weeknight slot with a news conference featuring the talk-show host, advertisers and affiliates tried to make sense of what all agreed was an audacious step to bolster the broadcaster's schedule.

"I find it to be a bold, future-forward move," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vp entertainment at Chicago-based ad buyer Starcom. "It's a defensive move to keep Jay from going to ABC. But it's an interesting move in the sense that if it can work, it's not a show that you DVR."

The TiVo-busting nature of a daily talk format was one of many arguments that NBC co-chiefs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff made in their appearance with Leno on Tuesday in Burbank. They also touted the addition of Leno as a reinforcement of NBC's comedy brand and the dramatic cost savings achieved by opting out of the scripted business at 10 p.m.

"We can do four, five of these shows for the cost of one 10 p.m. drama," Graboff said.

In an appearance later in the day on CNBC, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said the move will allow network execs to renew their commitment to scripted programming in the rest of primetime.

"You're going to see great scripted programs between 8 and 10," he said. "And this will actually give them a clearer focus."

Silverman noted that NBC could get back into the scripted business on weekends.

"We're going to be able to program Friday more aggressively, we're going to have more scripted on Sunday, we're going to be able to open up more nights," he said.

But the increase in unscripted hours was roundly panned across Hollywood, which will have fewer opportunities to sell its most expensive TV offering.

"It's sad for the business," a top scripted TV agent said. "Then again, we haven't launched a scripted hit to justify holding the hour."

Also taking a big loss will be SAG. With most 10 p.m. broadcast dramas featuring large ensemble casts that are better paid than their cable counterparts, NBC's move could put many actors out of work or force pay cuts.

Hardest hit by the move will be the major TV studios, which already are losing primetime real estate to reality TV. While cable is beefing up its scripted lineups, cable's license fees don't come even close to what the studios get for a 10 p.m. broadcast drama.

Noting a growing resemblance between NBC's scheduling and Comedy Central, which has Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's weeknight shows bookmarking primetime programming at 11 p.m., one agent commented, "NBC is going to make one hell of a cable network."

Others expressed doubts that Leno will be able to grow his audience at an earlier hour even with TV amassing more viewers at 10 than 11:30 p.m. But holding firm at its average of 4.8 million viewers can't be considered a success, either, said Jason Maltby, senior vp broadcast at New York-based ad buyer Mindshare.

"That's not exactly a stellar audience for primetime at 10 o'clock," Maltby said.

But if NBC makes Leno work at 10 p.m., look for rival broadcasters to follow suit, TV historian Tim Brooks said. "If it works for NBC at any level," he said, "others are going to jump on the bandwagon."

Lisa Howfield, GM of NBC affiliate KVBC-TV Las Vegas, praised the move to 10 p.m., citing the local popularity of a comedian who appears regularly on the Strip. "He'll get extra bonus points in this market, where we're pretty familiar with him," she said.

The new Leno program — tentatively called "The Jay Leno Show" — will launch next fall and run originals 46-48 weeks a year. Graboff said that NBC likely will premiere the show a couple of weeks before the traditional premiere week.

Leno said that his new show won't be a replica of "The Tonight Show" even though he plans to take many staples of the program with him. He does plan to shoot more out in the field.

Leno also said he asked NBC to conduct research before the decision to determine whether the model would work. "You don't want to go someplace where you're not wanted," he said. At the same time, Leno said he's been told for years that fans would like to see his show earlier.

Conan O'Brien addressed the Leno situation on a show he taped Tuesday. "We're thrilled for him, and we're thrilled for everybody at 'Tonight,' " he said. "Also, I've talked it over with my producer and that means I can keep doing my Jay Leno impression."

Paul J. Gough reported from New York; James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles. Nellie Andreeva and Andrew Wallenstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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