Will the Leno shift benefit the broadcaster?

WITH ITS PLANS to bring Jay Leno to primetime five nights a week, NBC has taken a major step toward no longer qualifying as a major broadcaster — becoming the Big Three web that ISN’T, as in Incredible Shrinking Network TV.

There’s considerable short-term logic in the Leno deal, if only because NBC has hit such a ratings nadir that there’s virtually no way the network can successfully program 22 hours a week. Essentially blocking out five hours of primetime real estate for relatively inexpensive but profitable talk programming will allow the remaining development execs to marshal their resources to shore up other parts of the lineup.

In addition, by hanging on to Leno — after buying itself five years of relative harmony in exchange for elbowing “The Tonight Show” host toward the door, so as not to lose heir apparent Conan O’Brien — the network avoids a three-way Letterman-Leno-O’Brien logjam at 11:30, which would have amounted to a murder-suicide pact. Despite NBC’s understandable pride in how it’s orchestrated baton passes on key franchises — Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on “The NBC Nightly News”; Meredith Vieira at “Today,” adding a mind-numbing fourth hour to that morning program; and now David Gregory hosting “Meet the Press” — latenight tends to be a hard-to-wrangle animal, breeding these sorts of awkward two guys, one throne, no-win scenarios.

FOR ALL THAT, though, let’s be clear on what’s occurring — and more important, why it’s happening, not to be obscured by the Tasmanian Devil-like torrent of spin the network unleashed this week.

This marks the official retrenchment of a major broadcast network toward mini-network status — a tacit admission that NBC Entertainment can’t adequately handle the weekly volume it once filled. The same goes for the entertainment division layoffs confirmed this week, with Peacock network officials feeding the press a cock-and-bull story about how its executive realignment was somehow an altruistic gesture on behalf of the creative community. Sure, there would be savings, but jettisoning personnel to “rightsize” the network would eliminate layers and establish NBC as TV’s “most talent-friendly organization,” co-chairman Marc Graboff said during a conference call Monday.

Not to be presumptuous about speaking for the creative community, but I suspect most would prefer enduring a few more nettlesome network notes in exchange for the employment opportunities created by five additional hours of scripted primetime fare. (An aside, by the way, to the Screen Actors Guild: If you haven’t recognized it yet, the Leno announcement further diminishes your leverage vis-a-vis the studios, opening the door for more give-backs and nontraditional primetime alternatives.)

Like the CW’s scuttled time-buy deal with Media Rights Capital, NBC’s strategy is all about reducing obligations and surface area by paring down the long-standing network model — simultaneously resigning itself to lose for less, given reasonable expectations for Leno’s ratings, trading competitive standing for profit. Doing so also brings NBC U’s flagship channel that much closer to its cable networks — with the distinction between t hem already blurred by NBC’s sagging audience.

FINALLY, the Leno shift reflects a live-for-today mentality that NBC Universal prez Jeff Zucker has employed since his ascent from “Today” to NBC Entertainment and beyond. It’s emblematic of the approach that briefly made “The Apprentice” the focal point of NBC’s Thursday-night lineup, proclaiming Donald Trump the unlikely heir to “Friends.” The maneuver worked like a charm for a while, but a rapid flameout yielded a lengthy stretch of bad hair days.

Ever the workhorse, Leno will turn 60 in 2010 but certainly exhibits no signs of slowing down. Even so, staking five hours of primetime on one piece of talent is a dice roll by any measure.

When speculation that parent GE might sell NBC Universal surfaced years ago, “Two and a Half Men” producer Chuck Lorre used his vanity-card messages to propose buying the studio for $85,000 in cash plus a Jeep with low mileage — later sweetening that offer to “a cool $1 million” and a ’95 Mercedes sedan. It was funny then, but at a time of economic crisis — when Tribune has filed for bankruptcy and TV Guide can be dumped for one dollar — let’s just say Lorre should keep the keys to that Mercedes handy.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more