NBC’s Leno move has biz talking

Show a challenge for scripted programming

The sour economy, mass industry layoffs, threat of a SAG strike and fall ratings implosion already had producers, agents and execs in a funk.

Then came NBC’s Monday move to blow scripted programming out of the 10 p.m. hour in favor of “The Jay Leno Show.”

For the industry players whose livelihood depends on the health of TV’s scripted biz, it was yet another lump of coal in an already ugly holiday-season stocking.

“It’s a bummer for the writers who are writing for drama,” said one agent. “Five less scripted drama shows at 10 p.m. is bad for the business … Some leaders at NBC said there hasn’t been a 10 p.m. drama that’s worked in three or four years. But no, they just haven’t developed the best dramas.”

Writers have already felt the primetime pinch in recent years, as the networks devote more hours to reality programs — as well as repeats on dead nights such as Fridays and Saturdays.

“The more reality shows and talkshows the broadcast networks do, the more that dramas will go to cable, where they can be done properly,” “The Closer” exec producer James Duff said this week at a Hollywood Radio and TV Society panel.

Veteran producer Steven Bochco, whose latest series, “Raising the Bar,” airs on TNT, said the move may actually benefit producers – by convincing them to move to cable.

“I think what NBC’s done is smart for them, at least in the short term,” he said. “And, contrary to a lot of doom and gloomers, I actually think what they’ve done is good for drama producers. It will, of necessity, force them to cable, where the atmosphere is far friendlier and the creative environment more conducive to doing original work.”

Cable has indeed picked up some of the slack as broadcasters move away from scripted fare, but there’s still no substitute for a major hit primetime franchise.

Talent with projects in the works at NBC now wonder whether there will be room for their wares next fall. For its part, NBC claimed the answer was yes: “We’re still doing as much development,” NBC Entertainment/Universal Media co-chair Ben Silverman said Tuesday. “Overall the load will be similar.”

But with the 10 p.m. slot gone, and NBC having earlier proclaimed that it would focus mostly on low-cost fare at 8 p.m., that just leaves the 9 p.m. hour. And with tentpoles like “Law and Order: SVU,” “Heroes” and “The Office” all battling for that spot, there may not be much room left for anyone else.

At the Peacock, that means high-profile projects in development — such as David E. Kelley’s new legal drama, as well as the Dick Wolf crime drama “Lost and Found” — now don’t have a shot at the once-marquee 10 p.m. slot (when producers have a bit more content leeway) and will have to duke it out for what few 9 p.m. hours are available.

Even for the shows that remain, “The Jay Leno Show” may offer the kind of halo effect that NBC isn’t exactly looking for: The aging up of its viewership. “The Tonight Show’s” median age is currently 56 — about 10 years older than the network’s primetime median age (46). Leno would likely dramatically bump up that primetime median — and perhaps age other shows as well.

“You have to look at how (does NBC) sell itself as a home for the top talent in town,” one agent said. “What are you doing to the intrinsic, long-term value of NBC? It’s definitely going to be a tricky place.”

It doesn’t help that the Peacock’s mass executive layoff and restructure this week has also left talent and reps confused over whom to pitch — and who’s in charge.

“You’re pitching to (new NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios primetime prexy) Angela Bromstad, but Ben helps pick the schedule — yet he didn’t hire Angela,” one insider said. “And (NBC U topper) Jeff Zucker makes the final decision, but he’s not in any of the pitches. Who’s the boss? And is there any chance of finding a champion to get your show on the air?”

Meanwhile, others wonder whether the NBC move will lead its competitors to make similarly drastic moves amid the depressed advertising market.

“It’s scary,” said one rival network exec. “It puts the pressure on the rest of us. Any time a network does something drastic like that, there’s the possibility of someone else doing something.”

Among the other drastic steps that one or more networks may kick around: returning time, such as Saturday nights, to the affiliates. (In another recent unprecedented move, Fox just gave half of its Saturday morning slot to stations and will program the other half with infomercials.)

Reaction from NBC affiliates — some of whom had been campaigning to take back the 10 p.m. hour for local newscasts — was mixed.

“It’s a pioneering move, and pioneers get a lot of arrows in the back,” said WTHR Indianapolis general manager Jim Tellus, who called the Leno announcement “a bold move.” “I think there are general managers who see it as an exciting opportunity, and others who are concerned about moving away from a traditional lineup.

“Is there some concern out there? I’m sure there is,” Tellus added. “But I have heard more from my counterparts that ‘You know, at least they did something.’ ”

Analyzing all the scripted shows running on the networks at 10 p.m. over the past few seasons, Carat USA senior VP-director of programming Andy Donchin conceded that a Leno-hosted gabber “will be at the bottom of the list” in terms of ratings.

“But that’s still greater than what most cable networks deliver in primetime,” he added.

(Brian Lowry, Mike Flaherty and Dan Frankel contributed to this report.)

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