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NBC bets it all on Leno

Hit or miss, Peacock experiment will make impact

What if it works? What if it doesn’t?

NBC finally takes the wraps off “The Jay Leno Show” Monday night — and just about everyone inside and outside the Peacock expects a big turnout on day one.

It’s what happens in the following weeks and months that is anyone’s guess. Once the initial interest in the primetime “Leno” wears off, talk will likely turn to whether it’s actually a success — and what sort of impact it has had on rivals ABC and CBS.

The bar already has been set pretty low for the show overall, with the benchmark expectation that it will average a 1.5 rating in the 18-49 demo. NBC insiders hope the debut at least matches what the finale of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” did in May, a 3.4.

Considering that Fox’s relatively unknown “Glee” pulled off the same rating for its premiere last week, it would be a shock if Leno couldn’t at least match that number. 

More likely, “Leno” will do at least a 5 rating (something that some NBC execs are more realistically expecting) — or perhaps even higher.

“I’m sure they’ve already written the press release for the first night,” said one rival exec. “For the first week there will be plenty of lookie-loos. We’re not going to know for a while.”

Entertainment toppers at ABC, CBS and Fox spent the summer publicly expressing frustration that NBC has framed the decision to strip “Leno” in primetime as a function of broadcast TV’s woes — rather than as a result of NBC’s ongoing schedule collapse and as a last-ditch effort to keep Leno from defecting to a rival.

“They were put in a position where they had to do this,” said one exec. “They really didn’t have a choice. They were out of shows, and this was a Hail Mary solution.”

That’s why, if the “Leno” ratings are better than expected, rival execs are dreading the Peacock’s subsequent victory lap — and the resulting stories that will hail it as TV’s new primetime model. Time magazine, after all, has already proclaimed on its cover that the future of broadcast TV is in Leno’s hands.

“If Leno works, then Jeff Zucker will declare himself emperor of the universe and that will be it,” quipped another rival network exec. “He’ll continue to try and lump everyone together and spin it as proof that network TV was dead — and declare himself the savior.”Most rivals expect NBC to claim victory no matter what: Either the ratings will be better than expected and the Peacock will have an easy time crowing, or viewership will be a bust, but the Peacock will still point to its success in slashing primetime costs.

“Even if it’s doing less than Jay did at 11:30, they’re so far down the road that they’re stuck with it,” one rival said. “Structurally, and budget-wise, I don’t know how you go back. In terms of their schedule and budgeting, they’ve crossed the Rubicon here.”

But if NBC’s decision to clear out five hours of primetime for “The Jay Leno Show” is eventually considered a bona fide success story, there’s always the remote chance another network — with ABC the likely contender — might take up the primetime strip strategy as well.

The Alphabet, after all, came close with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” earlier this decade, running the show four nights a week at one point. The networks have all also employed several newsmagazines over the course of a week in the past.

Given the rebound success of “Nightline,” perhaps a five-night news program might work as another 10 o’clock alternative.

But that’s a longshot. More likely, scheduling execs say the success of a “Leno” strip might free them up to make more dramatic shifts, such as adopting the cable model of airing the same episode of a scripted series two or even three times within the same week.

“You don’t necessarily have to do it the way NBC did it, but you might see more cost cutting,” one rival said. “Maybe someone gives up Saturday altogether. It’s more feasible now than it would have been a few years ago.”

On the flip side, if “Leno” is considered a bust, the first seeds of discontent might be sown at the affiliate level — particularly if their 11 p.m. newscasts take a huge hit during the November sweeps.

NBC managed to quickly shut down Boston affiliate WHDH’s attempt to preempt “Leno” with a 10 p.m. newscast. But if it becomes a real revolution, the Peacock might have a hard time containing its affils.

At that point, some execs — including former NBC entertainment prexy Garth Ancier, now head of BBC Worldwide America — predict Peacock execs may give stations the 10 p.m. slot for their local news and air “Jay Leno” at 10:30 instead, straight into “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”

Some rivals also expect NBC to cut back “The Jay Leno Show” to three nights a week if it’s having ratings troubles. In that scenario, the net might bring back scripted fare to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But Leno (whose deal with NBC spans two years) himself has said that’s a non-starter. It’s pretty much five days or nothing for Leno, who appears ready to throw in the towel altogether if this experiment is a dud.

Then there’s the possibility that “The Jay Leno Show” is a hit — but everything else around it, including “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” and the rest of primetime, collapses.

“NBC is a network that has said nobody watches at 8 o’clock,” one exec said. “They’re airing only eight hours of scripted programming this fall. They could find that the whole thing just falls apart. What if local news falls apart, Conan’s hurt, and the only thing working for them is Jay Leno?”

Regardless of what happens, this summer’s press release war between NBC and CBS over the Conan O’Brien/David Letterman latenight battle is just a taste of what will likely be a boisterous 10 p.m. war of spin this fall. Just as NBC is probably prepping that first Leno release, CBS probably is itching to hit “send” on that press release declaring the Eye’s scripted fare as the “King of 10 p.m.”

At least one rival is preaching patience, however — both for NBC and for rivals that might be quick to brand “Jay Leno” a failure.

“This is the kind of thing we’ll have to evaluate over the course of a year, rather than a week,” he said. “Even if it’s bad and we want to dance on their grave, let’s hold on, let’s see how it plays out first.”

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