Debate rages over significance of NBC strategy

NBC’s decision to strip “The Jay Leno Show” weeknights at 10 beginning in September was driven by a combination of necessity and savvy — amounts of each open for debate.

More important, it invites one intriguing, unanswered question about the future of network television: Does the new “Leno” reflect a fluky alignment of Peacock planets, or does it represent a watershed moment in primetime programming?

While stripped shows are about as old as TV itself in daytime and latenight, in primetime they’re exceedingly rare. One-time juggernaut “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” returned to ABC for a two-week run Aug. 9, after flaming out earlier this decade when the network expanded it to four nights a week.

Others have explored strip-mining, from the soaps modeled after Spanish-language telenovelas on MyNetworkTV to NBC’s launch of “Deal or No Deal.” But few of those experiments have yielded riches, and “Deal” petered out rather quickly after looking formidable just months earlier.

Everyone agrees the circumstances surrounding Leno’s move to five primetime nights a week are unique, but not on whether they are so unique as to be irrelevant.

“I will say this — and it’s an important story — ‘The Jay Leno Show’ is a defining show for network television,” offers producer and former network programming head Fred Silverman.

The logic is that with any kind of success for “Leno,” the benefits of one show spread across five nights will be too difficult for other broadcast networks to ignore in tough times. And that’s true … unless times never get as tough for the other networks as they have become for NBC, which has been mired in fourth place among the major broadcast networks in primetime and didn’t want Leno’s departure after his 17-year run on “The Tonight Show” to become another crisis.

“I don’t think that NBC did this because it’s the wave of the future,” one rival network exec says. “They did this because they were afraid Jay would go to another network. … Financially, this was a home run for them.”There is a reason stripping has been so infrequent in primetime. Despite a splintering of viewership across a TV universe exploding with channels, network primetime remains valuable territory, commanding the highest visibility and ad rates.

As a result, not even NBC expects “Leno” to become a dominant player in its timeslot night after night.

On the other hand, a lack of dominance doesn’t necessarily spell a lack of sense.

“The true measure of success is going to be across all four quarters of the season … September to September,” NBC exec veep of program planning and scheduling Mitch Metcalf says. “Will (Jay) be No. 1 against every original competitor? No, but he’s going to be in the mix — and against repeats, he’s going to be very strong, and the net number across all four quarters is going to be an impressive number that stays, most importantly, consistent throughout.”

If “Leno” follows through on that promise and staunches NBC’s bleeding at 10 p.m., that could not only help the network rebuild, it might actually offer a model for others to follow. Even with Leno’s stratospheric salary, the cost of producing his show is a fraction of the hundreds of millions needed to develop and produce programming to fill the 250-plus hours his show will occupy each year.

The Peacock can then afford to be more choosy with regard to what it airs between 8 and 10 p.m.

“We’re still developing hard for those other time periods,” Metcalf says. “In the last development cycle, for example, we didn’t see a 20%-30% reduction in our development costs; we went consistent with prior years. This is really about enabling us to continue to put first-class, A-level scripted shows in those remaining hours.”

Adds Silverman: “It really does make sense;., it certainly makes sense economically. They’ll do five one-hour shows at the cost of one dramatic series, maybe even less. And if they do end up doing a 2½ to a 3 rating, it’s a pot of gold.”

Over the course of the last year, Leno averaged a 1.4 rating among adults 18-49 and 5.1 million viewers overall in latenight. In the 10 o’clock hour, NBC averaged a 2.5 demo rating and 7.5 million viewers, paced by “Law & Order: SVU” and “ER.”

“I think in the light entertainment format, (stripping) makes all the sense in the world — and there is some precedent,” Silverman says. “Merv Griffin, many many years ago, had a deal with Metromedia, did his talk show in syndication and played in 8 p.m., and did quite well. My feeling is there are some other personalities out there that could do a show like this if someone were to reach out to them.”

How might this all go wrong for NBC and in turn nip the strip trend in the bud? One hint came this past spring, when Boston affiliate WHDH initially refused to air “Leno” at 10 p.m., with station owner Ed Ansin predicting it will be “very adverse to our finances” by being an inadequate lead-in for its 11 p.m. programming.

NBC ungently persuaded WHDH to reverse its decision, but if Leno’s numbers do end up beyond disappointing, a wider rebellion might not die so easily.

“If the NBC affiliates see their late news ratings start to erode,” the rival network exec says, “and if they can correlate it to the ‘Leno’ lead-in,’ that’s when World War III will break out at NBC.”

One advantage of a stripped program leading into the local news, however, is the consistency of its format, and auds tuning it to NBC stations at 10:55 p.m. will know what they’re getting — one of Leno’s trademark comedy routines like “Headlines” or “Jaywalking.”

At a “Leno Show” panel at the TCA Press Tour last week, NBC exec VP of latenight and primetime Rick Ludwin detailed the net’s plan to hook viewers into the local news.

“When the comedy is over, Jay will say good night,” Ludwin says. “He will say, ‘Stay tuned for Conan.’ And then he will say, ‘Your late local news starts now,’ and we fade to black, and the news starts.”

But aiding the doomsayers’ arguments is the spotty history of primetime strips. When “Millionaire” went to four nights a week at ABC in the fall of 2000, it burned out, as did newsmagazine “Dateline NBC” when it expanded to as many as five nights a week in the late 1990s. While telenovelas are a mainstay of Spanish-language networks, MyNetworkTV’s adaptation met a miserable end.

“The business is changing and evolving,” says the rival exec, “but it doesn’t mean the solution is to strip something.”

That being said, no one has tried stripping a comedy-variety show in broadcast primetime like “Leno.” NBC and its believers argue that the ongoing topicality and constant stream of new guests on “Leno” — along with the mainstream likability of the host himself — should counter the burnout effect.

Further, NBC doesn’t need every viewer to watch “Leno” every night, or even the entire hour.

“It’s like a subway platform in New York,” Metcalf says. “People are constantly coming in and out and up and down the stairs and on and off the trains. … There are so many entry points to the show — his monologue, the comedy, the guests he has in the second half-hour.”

Ultimately, it might be best to view the stripped primetime show as merely the latest example of a venerable network tradition: counterprogramming. While you’d rather be the network that the competition is counterprogramming against, a unique alternative — depending on your expectations — is neither a predestined success nor predestined failure.

“If it works, the other networks will copy it,” says Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media. “That much I can predict.”

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