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Hey NBC, Time to Bring Back ‘The Jay Leno Show’?

Digesting the ratings for “Hannibal” – which considering the list of ingredients, including a presold title, heavy marketing and mostly positive reviews, have to be considered disappointing – one wonders if someone at NBC is thinking, “Hey, how about bringing back ‘The Jay Leno Show’?”

As you might recall, the Leno premise was not about winning in the ratings competition at 10 p.m., but altering the network financial model and, in essence, losing less expensively. And with a tepid audience for such a handsome-looking dramatic series, it’s worth noting NBC could have probably produced several weeks of Leno for roughly the same cost as that “Hannibal” pilot.

At the time, NBC’s real screw-up was in not fully and honestly explaining its strategy to the media and affiliates, with the latter rebelling as the lead-in to their late local news dragged them down. In hindsight, the network’s initial idea – putting Leno at 8 p.m., after NBC had floated devoting that hour strictly to reality shows and game shows in 2006 – might have softened the blow, although execs still would have needed to do a better job of tamping down expectations.

The main problem for NBC right now is the network has sunk to a place where it’s difficult to get enough traction to push upward. Granted, huge hits have come from cable networks with even smaller audience bases, but they’re not faced with churning out a full week’s worth of original programming in primetime, which makes the task more daunting.

NBC can spin the numbers all it wants, but unless “Hannibal” builds in the coming weeks, saying it topped tune-in for fast casualties like “Do No Harm” amounts to case of damnation with faint praise. Nor should anyone fall for the old “DVR ratings should really pull up our midterm grades, Dean Wormer” deflections.

“Critics say reality, game shows at 8 p.m. show NBC’s given up,” read a headline back when then-NBC chief Jeff Zucker introduced the plan, which didn’t formally materialize, in its amended form, until the network became desperate enough to try it so as not to lose Leno to a rival. (For giggles, here’s a link to all that happened by the one-year anniversary of Leno’s premiere, as well as my original review of his primetime foray.)

An upcoming documentary about Watergate reminded me of the Richard Nixon reelection slogan “Nixon Now — More Than Ever.” Substitute “Leno,” and the ad might still apply.

So … better late than never? And is that a neatly pressed white handkerchief you’re holding, Dr. Lecter, or a white flag of surrender?

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