It all begins tonight: The Jay Leno Show (NBC and Citytv, 10 p.m.).
NBC’s 10 p.m. comedy conversion was all the radio guys want to talk about today. Was on with MacArthur in the Morning on London, Ont.’s The Hawk (103.9 FM), my buddy Mike Miller at Lima, Ohio’s News Talk 1150 WIMA and several CBC syndicated radio stations this afternoon, including Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver.
What seemed like a desperate move last December seems to make more and more sense today. With all this awareness, Leno will open big. Jerry Seinfeld guests tonight, with Kanye West also booked and looking to grab every mike in sight. (Leno must have given West a car for pulling that headline-grabbing stunt.) Couch hopper Tom Cruise (tomorrow, who is a draw but a terrible guest) Robin Williams (Wednesday), Halle Berry (Thursday) and others will keep the numbers from collapsing this week. Helping is that Leno will open against drama reruns before CSI: Miami, The Mentalist and other scripted 10 p.m. hits return next week.
The surest sign that other networks are getting nervous is the growing chatter that CBS and ABC will refuse to book any talent from their competing shows on Leno`s showcase. Leno dismissed this in a conference call with critics last week, suggesting that if network TV`s in as much trouble as people say it is, “why don’t we all just promote one another and see if we can stay in business?”
That`s Leno. Shrewd, a playa, always two moves ahead of the other guy. He put on a clinic at press tour last month, casual, low key, downplaying expectations.
The 59-year-old comedian is upfront about his show and his appeal. He wants to build a “big tent show,” something people of all ages can laugh at. He wants it to feel live, like an event, citing American Idol and football as the only kinds of shows that can still be counted on to draw a mass network audience. NBC has built him a test track outside his Burbank, Calif., studio, where he`ll race around in electric cars with celebrities like good sport Drew Barrymore (fresh from her Toronto film fest appearance). If something goes wrong, as Leno says, “Who doesn’t want to see celebrities hit the wall and burst into flames?”
That`s not going to happen with this show. It will open big and challenge the scripted drama stranglehold at 10. Leno will be on with fresh shows 44 weeks a year, twice what the new drama output will be. He`ll beat the scripted shows in reruns at a fraction of the cost.
The vital thing for NBC, however, will be Leno`s ability to hold viewers until 11 p.m. to deliver the largest possible audience to those NBC affiliate newscasts. That`s why Headlines, a popular Tonight feature, will be on right at the end of tonight`s debut. There will be sketch comedy in that same slot the rest of the week, with several old and new comedy correspondents giving the series a bit of a Daily Show vibe (minus Jon Stewart and Company`s edge).
Rogers`owned Citytv has taken the Leno gamble in Canada and why not. If it clicks, they will have solved a 10 o`clock problem over five nights. It could give the new look City and instant identity, breaking it away from the CHUM days.
Other broadcasters, of course, see this as an opportunity. Global is banking that it will pick up female viewers with its 10 o`clock dramas like Brothers & Sisters and The Good Wife. But if Leno even approaches CBS and ABC head-to-head at 10, look for Jimmy Kimmel and perhaps even David Letterman to make the move to prime time.
And if it all bombs, don`t worry about Leno. He has a two year deal at his old Tonight Show salary (reportedly between $20-$25 million per year). He`s just coming off a 17 year run as the host of The Tonight Show. He`s booked in comedy clubs and 5000-seat venues like Ontario`s Casino Rama for years. As he says, “Ì`m rich.” If this flops, he`ll go down swinging and have fun trying.

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