This is either brilliant or the end of network television as we know it: Nikki Finke and several others are reporting that, in an effort to keep Jay Leno at their network after he hands over The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien, NBC will offer the talk show host his own Monday to Friday prime time showcase at 10 p.m..
The idea, apparently, sprang from NBC Universal chairman Jeff Zucker. The brilliant part: NBC Universal is in a tailspin, with the fall launch a total washout. The plunge in ad revenue has already led to a 5% layoff in the network’s workforce.
Leno at 10 will cost way less than a slate of pricey dramas, keep the lights on for the affiliate newscasts at 11 and keep Leno away from rivals.
There has already been speculation that networks will have to program fewer hours next season just to survive. Fox and CBC, for example, already only program ten hours of prime time entertainment fare Monday to Friday (CBC has the National News at 10 p.m.). That’s five weekday hours less than CBS, CTV, ABC, Global–you get the idea. With costs as high as $3- to $5-million per hour of network drama, and decreasing ad revenues, it is go small, or go home.
Enter Leno, scheduled to hand off The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien next June 1. Back in July, at the last TCA press tour, it looked like there was no way in hell that Leno stays at NBC. (Even after Leno, disguised in a bald cap and fake goatee, crashed the NBC executive sessions as a fake reporter.) Network officials at the time, including NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman, said they would try anything to keep Leno at the network but nobody thought it was possible at the time. Then again, nobody saw the meltdown in the television business coming quite this fast, either.
While no one can officially be talking to him (that would be tampering), there have been all kinds of whispers that ABC would ditch Nightline to showcase him at 11:35 as early as January, 2010 (which is when he would be free of his NBC contract). Fox and Sony are seen as other suitors for Leno, No. 1 in late night for over a dozen years and showing no signs of wearing out his welcome with middle America.
NBC gambled that Leno would be out of gas by 2009 when they made that five year deal to makeover their late night schedule. Leno, pushing 60. O’Brien, 45. It did seem like a no-brainer at the time–except Leno’s ratings never wavered.
Will this all work? Finke–who hates Zucker–raises some doubts:

…it could all go into the crapper if Leno’s 11:30 PM audience fails to follow him. Or if Jay doesn’t attract more eyeballs than his most recent average of 4.8 million viewers tantamount to a mere pittance for primetime. Or if Leno’s show cuts into Conan’s viewers which cuts into new Late Night host Jimmy Fallon’s audience because there’s 3 similar programs in a row (and 3 1/2 if you count Carson Daly’s abysmal half-hour). Suddenly, there’s talk show format fatigue.

Still, here’s why it makes sense and how it could work, according to late night expert Bill Carter at The New York Times (read his full account here):

Though Mr. Leno will command an enormous salary, likely more than $30 million a year, the cost of his show will be a fraction of what a network pays for dramas at 10 p.m. Those average about $3 million an episode. That adds up to $15 million a week to fill the 10 p.m. hour. Mr. Leno’s show is expected to cost less than $2 million a week.
In addition, NBC will get many more weeks of original programming. Network dramas typically make 22 to 24 episodes a year. Under this deal, the executives involved in the discussions said, Mr. Leno will perform 46 weeks a year.
That differential in cost will likely be sufficient for NBC to absorb any decrease in ratings from its current slate of dramas. Mr. Leno has averaged about 4.8 million viewers for his show this year, with a rating of 1.3 in the important category of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 that most advertisers favor.

Carter also points out that there have been no new hits on any U.S. network at 10 p.m. in four years.
It all sounds like one of those “Stupid Headline” bits Leno does, but if it is true, there could be many more late night shakeups in the coming weeks. And what about Canada? Will cash strapped Global swing a deal with NBC to turn their 10 p.m. schedule over to Leno?
The whole deal is expected to become official tomorrow (Tuesday) at a press conference in Los Angeles. Will Leno or Kimmel dare goof on it tonight (Letterman is off this week)? Stay tuned.

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