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Is Leno the answer for NBC?

Network unveils new primetime talkshow

NBC took the wraps off its primetime Jay Leno gabber on Tuesday, touting it as an answer to the network’s ratings woes.

As first leaked Monday, the tentatively titled “The Jay Leno Show” — a moniker Leno isn’t too fond of — will air weeknights at 10 starting in fall 2009 on NBC.

Leno, flanked by NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, told reporters at a Universal City press conference that he plans to retain most of the elements that have made “The Tonight Show” the top-rated latenight talker for nearly a decade and a half.

That means his usual monologue, such bits as “Headlines” and “Jaywalking,” and guests and musical acts. Band leader Kevin Eubanks is expected to remain. But Leno also plans to expand the show’s scope given the increased budget he’ll have to play with in primetime.

“We’ll take elements of the show that we know work — monologue, drop-ins, topical stuff,” Leno said. “Probably get more newsmaker things. (But) the desk and the format of ‘The Tonight Show’ belong to ‘The Tonight Show.’ That will go with Conan.”

Leno credited NBC U topper Jeff Zucker for approaching him last month about stripping a Leno skein weeknights at 10.

Indeed, until recently, NBC insiders had believed Leno’s move to ABC was inevitable, but Zucker was tenacious in making a deal, Leno said.

“I know NBC,” he said. “I know the people I work with … it just makes it easier.”

The Peacock’s fortunes changed after the 10 p.m. plan was floated — and Leno decided to stick with the network where he’s spent the past two decades. It was all over Monday, when Leno called Disney chief Bob Iger to say “thanks, but no thanks.”

“We feel somewhat like the guy that asks his longtime girlfriend over and over to marry him and she keeps saying no, and then one day he asks just because he’s used to asking and she says, ‘OK,’ ” Graboff said.

Nonetheless, Leno didn’t pull any punches Tuesday, noting that NBC “barely has six hours of programming” anyway — and his relationship with the Peacock had been strained in recent years.

“Originally, I wasn’t going to stay with NBC, but I remembered something my parents told me when I was a kid,” he quipped. “They said whatever you do in life, always try to come in fourth.”

Later, he added, “There were reports that I was going to ABC, but that was started by a disgruntled employee — me.”

Leno also noted that there wasn’t any hurry to get his deal done — pointing out that his old NBC contract ran through January 2010, and that the Peacock wasn’t going to let him work elsewhere anyway.

“You guys have screwed me through January,” he said.

Under terms of his contract, had Leno departed NBC, he would have been forced to wait six months — until January 2010 — before appearing elsewhere. Now, under the new pact (said to span “several years”), he’ll only take next summer off.

Although the 10 p.m. idea had been circulating for months, Leno said he and attorney Ken Ziffren had only recently been given a firm proposal by Zucker. NBC Universal had floated several other ideas by Leno first, including an 8 p.m. show that would have consisted of just a monologue and a few comedy bits.

“But that didn’t seem like it would be enough to hold people to me,” Leno said. “Eight o’clock doesn’t sound real good.”

Meanwhile, Leno said he’s increasingly heard on the road from fans that “The Tonight Show” is on too late for them to catch it. The Peacock showed him studies that also charted a willingness by his audience — which has been aging, along with him — to start watching Leno at an earlier time.

“Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have made any sense,” Leno said. “The 10 o’clock shows were killers. … (But) it just seemed like the time was right for this. Would I do this at the beginning of my career? No. But after 17 years of being on ‘The Tonight Show,’ it’s fun to try something different.”

Asked whether he’d like to spend the rest of his career in this slot, Leno said, “Probably.”

“My mother’s from Scotland, so we tend to die in the mine, so yeah,” he said. “It would be nice to have a stroke during a taping and that would be the end of it.”

As for why Leno didn’t ask for full ownership of the show — or any other concessions, most of which NBC probably would have granted — the host said he had no desire to expand his domain.

“You can only eat so much pie,” he said. “I don’t need to be the richest guy in show business … I like being an employee; I don’t want to be the boss. I write jokes, tell jokes and get a check. I enjoy making love; I don’t want to be a gynecologist. I live in an idiot dream world, like most people in show business.”

As for incoming “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien, Leno said the two have discussed the move, and there’s no animosity between them.

“It’s fair to say that our show at 11:30 does a lot better than a lot of the 10 o’clock shows are doing,” Leno said. “I’ve always given Conan a lead-in from my show in the past and will continue to do that in the future.

“Conan and I are great friends. That won’t be any problem. It’s less of a problem than if we were on competing networks.”

On “Late Night” Tuesday night, O’Brien said he was fine with the move.

“I am indebted to Jay Leno,” O’Brien said. “And I love the idea that the relationship is going to continue,” O’Brien said.

Silverman called the “Leno Show” — particularly the monologue — “DVR-proof” and said the primetime hour will allow “the scale and opportunity for Jay to do what he does best.”

“Jay is the only person who we’d ever pursue to do this,” Silverman said. “The idea of Jay being on primetime every night of the week not only adds stability … but further reinforces us as the home of the best comedy on all of television.”

Leno, Silverman and Graboff said they won’t be competing in the traditional sense against the 10 p.m. dramas on ABC and CBS, noting that it’s no longer an “apples-to-apples comparison.”

“Do we expect to beat ‘CSI’? Do we expect to beat some other 10 o’clock shows? No,” Leno said. “Not at first run. … But we can do four or five of these shows for the cost of what a normal 10 o’clock show does.”

Indeed, while “Leno” will likely cost around $2 million a week to produce, the cost of hourlong dramas has shot up dramatically in recent years, surpassing even that figure for each episode.

As for ratings, Graboff said the threshold of success for Leno will be lower than for scripted programming in the hour given the smaller expense of a talkshow.

That said, Leno will be in originals for around 46 weeks a year, giving NBC more originals in the hour than usual.

“This allows us to concentrate on 8 to 10 and create the best lead-ins possible for Jay,” Silverman said. “We’re still doing as much development but taking a more targeted approach. Overall, the load will be similar in terms of weight.”

The execs said they may now stick with more original fare on Fridays and Saturdays, nights that had previously been given up for dead.

The new NBC schedule also may mean smaller episodic orders of series, Silverman added, and more timeslot sharing. That also means fewer repeats of scripted skeins.

“This is, in part, a response to advertisers clamoring for more original programming,” Silverman said. “We’re not in the rerun game anymore.”

Of course, the Leno move is also a response to NBC’s ongoing Nielsen woes. With plenty of holes in its sked — not to mention the retirement of shows like “ER” — the Peacock had more than enough room to accommodate a stripped series at 10 p.m.

“We’ve been very focused and very vocal about how we are looking to change how broadcast television works in this new-media landscape,” Graboff said. “And we are looking to keep Jay Leno in the family. With this, we have accomplished both.”

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