NBC finally got around to officially announcing what I was first to report on December 9: Jay Leno’s move to more valuable and visible prime time at 10 p.m., starting in fall 2009. “Do we expect to beat CSI? No,” Leno admitted. “Originally I wasn’t going to stay at NBC. But I remembered something my parents always told me, ‘Whatever I do in life, make sure I come in fourth.’” To which his boss Ben Silverman responded, “You’re in the right place.”
Everybody congratulated each other, Leno told more jokes at NBC’s expense (but, shockingly, had praise for unworthy NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker), all while the entertainment co-chairmen Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff downplayed their or Zucker’s accountability for NBC’s prime-time failure or programming layoffs.
“We are thrilled to keep Jay in the family. We’ve been very focused and very vocal about how we are looking to change how broadcast television looks,” Graboff began the press conference. But Leno later quipped, “What they haven’t said is that I’ll be on right after The Today Show, from 8 to 10 p.m. ... I just heard that CBS is putting David Letterman on at 9:59 p.m.”
Leno explained that this new prime-time deal only came together last week. “‘See what the affiliates think. Try it out,’” Leno says he told NBC about stripping his show.
“When we came up with it, it happened very quickly,” Graboff told reporters. Silverman said keeping Leno helped to secure “NBC’s comedy brand” — to which Leno responded, “What Ben means is that NBC barely has six hours of programming.”
Leno said he called Conan O’Brien about it last night. I heard that O’Brien’s producer, Jeff Ross, was telling Hollywood yesterday that “having Jay at 10 p.m. is better than having Jay at 11:30 p.m. and competing against him.”
Leno also picked up the phone yesterday to say sorry to Disney chief Bob Iger, but the No. 1 late-night host won’t be going to ABC. “Those were rumors started by a disgruntled employee — me,” Leno said that night. But Jimmy Kimmel spoke up about the near-deal that wasn’t — and how he almost got screwed by his network president: “I feel like a huge chin has been lifted off of my shoulders. I want our loyal viewers to know that I spoke to the president of ABC this morning and he assured me that, unless something better comes along, I will be on this network for many years to come.”
NBC Universal’s Zucker couldn’t afford to let late night’s No. 1 host go to a competitor. So this way, Leno stays at the network even though Zucker threw him under the bus five years ago by giving The Tonight Show to O’Brien in 2009.
It keeps ABC (and also-rans Fox and Sony) away from Leno. And it may very well secure NBC’s 10 p.m. slot and Leno’s legacy.
Or, it could all go into the crapper if Leno’s 11:30 p.m. audience fails to follow him. Or, if he doesn’t attract more eyeballs than his most recent average of 4.8 million viewers, tantamount to a mere pittance for prime time. Or if Leno’s show cuts into O’Brien’s viewers, which cuts into new Late Night host Jimmy Fallon’s audience because there are three similar programs in a row (three and a half if you count Carson Daly’s abysmal half-hour). Suddenly, there’s talk show–format fatigue.
Conventional wisdom has it that late-night viewers are creatures of habit, so the success of a major change like this is far from a given. Which is why Zucker foreshadowed at an investors conference on December 8 that he was considering cutting the number of hours and even the number of nights the network airs programming and possibly giving it back to beleaguered NBC affiliates.
KSHB/KMCI V.P./general manager Craig Allison told the press, “I think this does present an opportunity. We’ll take it and make lemonade out of it — we know how to do that.”
Now, isn’t that a ringing endorsement of Zucker’s track record? Sheesh. Little wonder now that Zucker fired his top TV network/studio programming staff — but not the real culprits in NBC’s current failure, himself and Ben Silverman.
“If a fish does stink from the head, they’ve made a very wise choice in cutting this one from the gills down,” quipped Peter Tolan, the show runner of Rescue Me, at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s “Hitmakers” luncheon. Tolan went on to commend NBC for firing everyone right before the holidays “so that the storm drains of Bob Hope Drive are running red.” Another HRTS panelist, Chuck Lorre of Two and a Half Men, offered $500,000 for NBC, believing the network is now so devalued that even he could afford to buy it.