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Leno news catches TV world by surprise

Comic Jay Leno will launch his own nightly talk show in prime time next year  after his planned departure as host of "The Tonight Show."  But was the decision a smart one?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jay Leno, the King of Late Night, will be changing the way we view prime time.

The deal NBC struck with the “Tonight” show host, made official Tuesday, alters primetime as we’ve known it since the days of “I Love Lucy,” and even before.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

The news that Leno’s talk-variety show would be airing at 10 p.m. EST — offering his audience the chance to catch his monologue 90 minutes earlier and not miss any sleep — caught viewers and the TV industry by surprise.

It also answered a long-simmering question: What will Leno do after May 29, his final appearance as host of the “Tonight” show before turning it over to Conan O’Brien?

But it raised more questions than it answered. Among them: Will enough viewers choose a transplanted Leno over traditional scripted prime-time fare? Is this the first step in prime-time drama being pushed aside for cheaper-to-produce nightly talk? Does this leave cable networks as the go-to source for innovative scripted series?

And, is Leno really the best NBC’s got for the 10 p.m. slot?

“The planets aligned perfectly,” said NBC Entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff during Tuesday’s announcement in Los Angeles. “We would not have done this with anybody but Jay Leno.”

Show called 'DVR-proof'Co-chair Ben Silverman hailed the “immediacy” of Leno’s upcoming show, and how its topicality will set it apart from network competition (such as “Without a Trace,” “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY” on the current CBS lineup).

“It’s a ’killer app’ because you want to watch it THAT NIGHT,” said Silverman, meaning, “it’s totally DVR-proof.”

But both execs and their star dismissed any notion that his show would crush its rivals.

“Do we expect to beat ’CSI’? Do we expect to beat some other 10 o’clock shows? No, not in the first run,” said Leno, who noted that his show will air fresh episodes 46 weeks of the year, even when the competition might be airing reruns.

“We would not be doing this if we didn’t have positive feedback from our research, from our affiliate (stations), and from the advertisers,” Graboff said.

Leno, who’s been on “Tonight” for 16 years, averaging 4.8 million viewers this season, could deliver his nightly monologue and sketches to more viewers come fall 2009. Generally, about 50 percent more people watch TV at 10 p.m. than at 11:30 p.m.

Stripping his show across a five-night swath of prime time will mean stability for viewers, not to mention “strengthening NBC as a comedy brand,” Graboff said. It will also save money, costing about $2 million a week to fill five hours of prime time versus the $15 million a week it costs for dramas.

Is top-rated CBS likely to follow suit?

“You don’t change what is already succeeding,” said CBS spokesman Chris Ender. “Our prime time is performing quite well at 10 o’clock, and earlier in the evening.” ABC had no comment.

Maybe it’s a smart plan for mired-in-fourth-place NBC. Maybe even necessary. It sold Leno on staying at the network after he was pushed out of “Tonight” by NBC’s deal with O’Brien in 2004.

“There were reports that I was going to ABC, but they were started by a disgruntled employee. Me,” Leno cracked to reporters.

Silverman said the move will also allow NBC to “concentrate our firepower.”

“It allows us to concentrate all of our (new program) development across 8-to-10 (p.m.), and create the best lead-ins we possibly can for Jay,” he said.

The argument had an ironic twist in light of an executive shake up Monday that saw some of NBC’s top programming firepower fired. Three execs under Silverman and Graboff were shown the door. The same day, NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker expressed continuing faith in the co-chairmen.

“In no way have we lost confidence in either one of them,” Zucker said.

Long before the Silverman-Graboff team, NBC had led the way breaking down traditional scheduling models. In 1994, it expanded its “Dateline NBC” newsmagazine from two editions per week to three, then in 1996 to four. Why not? “Dateline” was relatively cheap, easily scalable and a reliable audience draw. A quick fix.

That was a long time ago. Since then NBC has tried other strategies for plugging holes in its schedule.

Now Leno, the King of Late Night, is crossing into prime time.

What happens next is anybody’s guess.

What if his show revived the long-moribund variety genre, which seemingly got the last nail pounded into its coffin by Rosie O’Donnell’s painful NBC special only two weeks ago!

On the other hand, what if ABC and CBS are able to capitalize on the opportunity and split the 10 p.m. audience for dramas, which historically have set prime time apart from the rest of the schedule.

Or maybe in the new, fast-evolving television landscape, “prime time” doesn’t have any meaning anymore.

More on Jay Leno  |  "The Tonight Show"