Leno’s early shift rocks primetime

NBC stations, rivals, producers all feel effects

There goes the primetime neighborhood.

NBC’s blockbuster move to strip Jay Leno five nights a week at 10 may go down as one of those seminal moments in broadcast TV where the business took a dramatic shift.

The fallout from the Peacock’s decision to alter its schedule so radically might not be evident for a while. But industry execs, talent and reps are already sizing up what it might mean to the business — and them.

Among the players most impacted:

NBC. Moving Leno to 10 o’clock repped the best possible outcome for a network that otherwise faced the loss of its top-rated latenight asset.

The move solved an even more pressing problem for NBC: With its primetime in shambles, the Peacock had plenty of holes to fill — and not enough compelling content to fill it. Leno will plug five hours, leaving execs with a shorter sked to concentrate their best programming.

“You see how Fox has been a strong competitor with two hours a night of primetime programming,” NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios co-chair Marc Graboff said last week. “We have three hours a night of primetime programming. It’s just that our 10 o’clock hour is ‘The Jay Leno Show.’ ”

In the end, the 10 p.m. slot made sense because of NBC’s primetime weakness — but there’s little reason to cheer when it appears the Peacock managed to eke out a clean, smart Hail Mary pass rather than make such a move out of strength.

Jay Leno. The host managed to keep his job after all — and at a more visible timeslot.

He’ll still operate out of the same studio, tell the same kind of jokes, work with the same people (including exec producer Debbie Vickers) and appear on the same network.

Leno told reporters that “The Jay Leno Show” wouldn’t just be a primetime “Tonight Show,” but it’s hard to imagine much changing. “I’m not going anywhere,” Leno told his audience last week. “We’re staying.”

Conan O’Brien. The “Tonight Show” host-elect was likely going through a range of emotions when the Leno news became official.

O’Brien won’t have to compete against Leno on another network, and he’ll also continue to benefit from Leno’s lead-in. However, despite taking over the storied “Tonight Show” franchise, he’s still going to be second banana to Leno at the Peacock. In a way, the only thing to change is earlier timeslots for both hosts.

“Jay was going to go to ABC or Fox, it was going to happen,” says one insider from the O’Brien camp. “It would have been distracting, a difficult transition. Conan would have been competing against Dave and an angry Jay.

“In the best of all worlds, Jay goes off into the sunset, does his corporate stuff, does Vegas, and doesn’t go to compete on TV,” the source says. “But that wasn’t going to happen.”

The 10 o’clock hour. At the start of the decade, NBC was averaging a 7 rating among adults 18-49 at 10 p.m. across the week. This year, the Peacock has slumped to a 3 rating — but it’s not the only one suffering.

Even though ABC, CBS and NBC don’t have to compete with Fox and CW in the hour, they’re under assault from cable — where the 10 p.m. slot has become competitive. What’s more, as the nets like to point out, viewers are watching more pre-recorded programming on their DVRs in the hour.

But the biggest impact has been creative: The networks have failed to come up with compelling 10 p.m. programming that viewers want to watch, and no 10 o’clock series is among the top 10 highest-rated shows.

  • ABC and CBS. Now that NBC has abdicated the scripted game at 10 p.m., the Alphabet and Eye nets are in the hunt.

“This helps with our mix,” says one competitor. “This really took away a competitor.”

A rival network insider believes as much as $300 million could be up for grabs at the upfront sales market, and that ABC in particular — which shares more of an audience comp with the Peacock — might benefit more.

CBS supreme Leslie Moonves, meanwhile, says he’s still bullish about the hour.

“The model ain’t broken,” he said last week at the investors conference sponsored by UBS. “I will bet anybody who would like to bet that ‘CSI: Miami’ on Monday night at 10 o’clock will beat Jay by a lot. Remember that. By a lot.”

It’s also good news for ABC News’ “Nightline,” which has posted solid numbers lately and is no longer in danger of being replaced by a Leno show.

Talent, producers, studios and agents. “It’s horrible,” says one tenpercenter.

Says another: “It’s a bummer for the writers who are writing for drama. There are five less scripted shows at 10 p.m. That’s bad for writers. People don’t get it. They can’t understand.”

One studio topper called the Leno announcement “an incredibly cynical move.”

“Any of us with any level of history can remember similar examples that eventually proved to be pretty foolhardy,” the exec says. “ABC, when it had ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ thought they had revolutionized the business — why spend all that money on development, they asked. Or in the 1990s, when people thought dramas were dead.”

NBC execs say the handwringing is overwrought. “We’re still doing as much development,” says NBC Entertainment/U Media Studios co-chair Ben Silverman. “It’s just a targeted approach.”

Veteran producer Steven Bochco believes the nets’ continued move toward more cost-effective programming, such as reality shows, will hasten the creative move to cable — and that’s not a bad thing, he says.

“The atmosphere is far friendlier and the creative environment more conducive to doing original work,” he says.

Bochco also notes that the network drama marketplace dried up due to a lack of quality.

“Primetime drama isn’t medicine — you can’t make people watch it because it’s good for them,” he says. “Candidly, most of what’s passing for primetime drama these days isn’t very good anyway. So what’s the big deal? The really good shows will always find a venue, somehow.”

Affiliates. Reaction from NBC stations, 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,” says WTHR Indianapolis g.m. 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, But I have heard more from my counterparts that ‘at least they did something.’ ”

Advertisers. Carat USA senior VP/director of programming Andy Donchin says he likes the idea — anything that saves what is still the most effective broad-reach media tool is OK with him.

“If they can hopefully save some money at 10 o’clock, maybe they can pump some more money, energy and talent in from 8 to 10,” Donchin says. “I’m also hoping it could be a good vehicle for advertisers. Hopefully, it will be family-friendly, it will be something that delivers us some integration and some added value, and hopefully it delivers a decent number.”

Viewers. If Leno’s core audience makes the transition, and others treat the show as their fall-back choice in the hour, then Leno might do fine.

With Leno’s audience getting grayer — “Tonight Show’s” median age is nearly 56 — conventional wisdom says less of his aud is willing to stay up late to catch the show. A 10 p.m. Leno skein may wind up being a friendlier timeslot for the boomer crowd.

“I’m on the road about 160 days a year, and the one thing people say to me is, ‘I wish it was on earlier, I would watch it more often,'” Leno says. “It just seemed like the time was right for this.”

Daniel Frankel, Brian Lowry and Michael Flaherty contributed to this report.

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