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Is Leno Ready for Prime Time? 

The over-the-hill NBC hack should have shuffled off to ABC

Wednesday, Dec 10 2008
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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.”

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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.

Since The Tonight Show is a cash cow, Zucker is betting that Leno at 10 p.m. could be another. So NBC’s new slogan should be Nothing But Cheap. As for Leno, he and his powerhouse law firm, Ziffren, Brittenham, have a win-win situation — another fat contract that, this time, shouldn’t include a noncompete clause. But this isn’t about money for Leno; it’s about respect from Zucker. (Leno has said publicly that he’s able to bank his entire Tonight Show salary and live on the hefty fees from his personal appearances.)

Leno officially ends his Tonight Show host duties on May 29, and O’Brien starts on June 1. (Leno was going to be paid for all of 2009 by NBC even though he’s only working six months of it. He couldn’t start anywhere new until January 2010 because of a noncompete clause.)

So much for everyone, including me, thinking it was a lock for Leno to move to ABC as Jimmy Kimmel’s lead-in. But Leno had publicly told the press that he was “done” with NBC. He’d also been making merciless fun of NBC on the air. Judging from Leno’s animus toward Zucker, there was no way Leno would stay.

Instead, Leno was ABC-bound and on the air there in 2010. I’d heard from sources that Jimmy Kimmel was “okay” with having his time slot moved, and ABC extended its option with its current late-night host to keep him at the network through at least 2010. At the Television Critics Association briefing not long ago, ABC Entertainment topper Steve McPherson stated “there’s absolutely room for both” Kimmel and Leno, and pledged that Jimmy would be fully consulted during every step of the Jay negotiation — something Zucker failed to do with Leno. “I can’t believe they’re going to let this guy go at the top of his game,” McPherson said.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon began doing a Late Night Web show on December 8 to work out the kinks because Conan was so God-awful when he started hosting. Fallon will get TV time on the air, following Leno as O’Brien takes a breather and then prepares to take over The Tonight Show in May 2009. Meanwhile, how alarming for NBC that Late Late Show’s Craig Ferguson has caught up with Conan ratings-wise.

For his new show, Leno will tape in front of a live audience (but probably earlier in the day than 5 p.m.), and remain at NBC’s Burbank studio (whereas O’Brien is moving The Tonight Show to the new studio on the Universal lot), and be off the air for just three months. But hopefully Leno’s new show won’t just rely on his tired Tonight Show segments like “Jay Walking” and “Headlines.”

Estimates are that Leno 2.0 may only cost $2 million a week and result in 46 weeks of original shows, compared to the average $3 million per episode price tag of scripted prime-time dramas that air, on average, 22 original weekly episodes.

But the real question is whether the 58-year-old can attract more eyeballs than just the 4.8 million he averages now on The Tonight Show — measly by prime-time standards, especially in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic. But Zucker will explain this away by repeating his mantra that in this lousy economy he’s managing for margins instead of ratings. Maybe soon he’ll stop programming altogether.

Or be fired.

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