Taking inventory of Jay's primetime adventure

“Jay is doing fine,” the comic’s new NBC boss, Jeff Gaspin, told the New York Times this week regarding “The Jay Leno Show” experiment.

Actually, based on a preliminary accounting — and accounting is ultimately what motivated the move — Leno is doing as well as can by expected, which isn’t exactly the same as “fine.”

Taking inventory of Leno’s primetime adventure requires a view from multiple angles:

Creative: NBC stressed that this wouldn’t be “The Tonight Show,” even though the host didn’t harbor any burning desire to alter a winning formula. The net result is essentially the same program, only with the components awkwardly reorganized.

NBC was so afraid viewers would tune out — mirroring latenight, where many drift off to sleep during the hour — that execs kept pitching this as a comedy/variety show. But since Leno was content with his previous format, all that meant in practice was shuffling around the order of things.

As a consequence, the pacing feels off. The program still starts with its strength, Leno’s monologue, but has then conspicuously killed time for the next 20 minutes because of the imperative to relocate the guest and whatever comedy bit once immediately followed the monologue (“Headlines,” etc.) into the second half-hour.

In its determination to allay fidgety affiliates’ concerns about people nodding or zapping off, NBC oversold “Leno” as something fresh — a strategy that effectively ran its course after the first week of sampling.

In hindsight, Leno should have gone with his instincts and just done the show he was comfortable doing, standing — or failing — on its merits.

Ratings: Honestly, they’re not bad — slightly better than Leno was delivering in latenight, where HUT (homes using TV) levels are considerably lower.

Excluding the inflated launch week, Leno mostly settled in the 5 million to 6 million viewer range — enjoying a modest spike on Tuesdays, where “The Biggest Loser” provides a bigger lead-in; and struggling Thursdays, where CBS and ABC are both formidable.

The late Brandon Tartikoff opined that every show should be somebody’s favorite — anticipating the current era, in which consumer passion is a major part of the watch it/buy it/download it equation.

By contrast, “The Jay Leno Show” is more a default option (“Plan B,” as one media buyer put it) than a destination. Tellingly, TiVo Stop/Watch data indicate that time-shifting of the program is far lower than that exhibited with popular dramas — suggesting people tune in because there’s nothing else they want to watch, as opposed to appointment viewing.

Economics: Further ratings erosion would be bad news, but without a serious dive below current levels (and the show has dipped below 5 million viewers twice in the last six nights), NBC will make money thanks to “Jay Leno’s” relatively inexpensive price tag. Those gains are magnified, moreover, because the network didn’t go to the trouble and expense of producing and promoting new 10 o’clock dramas like ABC’s “Eastwick” and “The Forgotten,” which are drawing audiences not much bigger than Leno’s for several times the cost.

Ripple effect: It’s too early to conclude whether “Leno” is seriously hurting late local news and “Tonight Show” under Conan O’Brien. But it’s safe to say it isn’t helping, and the fact the older audience has already abandoned O’Brien has undermined NBC’s historic claims to latenight leadership, if not perhaps its ad sales.

Intangibles: By mitigating risk and playing not to lose, NBC is less of a competitive factor in primetime and has ostensibly put a cap on its upside. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker’s initial impulse — having reportedly proposed that Leno front a half-hour at 8 p.m., constructing a scaled-down version of his program around the monologue — would have been the wiser move (and still might represent a logical fall-back scenario), inasmuch as sliding 9 and 10 o’clock shows to earlier slots has seemingly depressed the entire lineup.

For obvious reasons, the producing community has also been apprehensive and hostile toward NBC’s decision to reduce its dramatic imprint. Scuttling “Southland,” the web’s most creatively promising drama, only exacerbated those tensions — feeding the nagging sense that many people who should have a vested interest in the Peacock’s future are instead rooting for it to get plucked.

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