Nice-guy host in unfamiliar bad-guy role

Jay Leno has always cultivated the image of a hard-working, blue-collar guy — one who has downplayed past talk of discord with David Letterman by saying there’s no reason to shed tears for millionaires and who has summarized his simple philosophy as “Write joke, tell joke, get check.”

But Leno finds himself in an uncomfortable and mostly unfamiliar role as he prepares to launch “The Jay Leno Show” on NBC: not merely as an underdog, which he’s been before, but now someone whom much of Hollywood is rooting against.

Leno has rejected the assertion that his 10 p.m. program is siphoning jobs away from others. Yet NBC’s decision to bet on handing five primetime hours to the host — hours that not only displace scripted series employing actors and writers, but which in success could also inspire other networks to explore similar cost-saving measures — has fed a growing level of unease within the creative community and invited sniping from rival broadcasters.

Most of the invective, notably, has been leveled not at Leno specifically but rather at NBC for having “given up,” as writer-producer Peter Tolan put it, by abandoning scripted dramas in an hour where the Peacock once aired such acclaimed programs as “Hill Street Blues” and “ER.” Nevertheless, for the ire expressed toward NBC to be fulfilled, Leno’s new endeavor, logically, has to fail.

Granted, what would constitute “failure” here is a moving target, inasmuch as a week of “Jay Leno” will cost roughly as much to produce as a single one-hour drama. Moreover, tune-in could easily be heightened by initial curiosity, followed by a falloff against the premieres of programs like “CSI: Miami” and “The Mentalist.”

According to NBC, the show’s ratings can only be accurately measured over the long haul — once other networks’ reruns kick in, whereas Leno will offer a topical and original alternative close to year-round. Other concerns, such as the program’s ripple effect on late local news and latenight, will also take time to evaluate.

The irony is that Leno was seemingly trying to take the high road yet again — and avoid the much-publicized fracas witnessed during “The Tonight Show” succession drama that ensued when Johnny Carson retired — when he opted to make his leap to primetime. Having been prodded to step aside by NBC back in 2004 because the network didn’t want to risk losing Conan O’Brien to a competitor, he found himself nearing his 2009 exit date without any desire to quit.

About to be displaced from the 11:30 slot he had triumphantly occupied, his options included going into direct competition with NBC on another network, with no shortage of suitors. Instead, he chose a different approach — one that not only kept him at NBC but didn’t put him in a three-way free-for-all opposite Letterman and O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”

It’s apparent, though, that Leno didn’t anticipate the angst his decision would unleash — and how it would exacerbate tensions already stoked by the proliferation of cheaper-to-produce reality shows and the Writers Guild of America’s 2007-08 strike.

NBC announced Leno’s shift to primetime in December, with some members of the talent guilds still harboring a bitter aftertaste regarding the host’s actions related to that work stoppage. Mere weeks ago, a WGA panel cleared Leno of charges that he violated guild rules by writing his latenight monologue during the strike.

At a session with reporters a few weeks ago, Leno — who had brought donuts to his writers as a gesture of solidarity — expressed confusion about the guilds’ hostility. “I don’t get that,” he said, adding in response to the notion that jobs would be lost, “If I didn’t do it, somebody else would.”

But somebody else didn’t, leaving Leno to bear at least some of the brunt of that pent-up anger. Like most controversies, the comic has sought to make a joke of this one, quipping at the same event in regard to heading to primetime, “I was happy where I was.”

NBC has stated it’s committed to Leno for the long haul; still, if the new program sputters, that will surely delight naysayers who will derive satisfaction from seeing a nice guy finish last.

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