NBC's decision to move Jay Leno to prime time drew a mixed reception from industry observers Tuesday.
As NBC executives made the case for clearing the No. 4 network's 10 p.m. weeknight slot during a news conference featuring the talk-show host, advertisers and affiliates tried to make sense of what all agreed was an audacious step to bolster the broadcaster's schedule.
"I find it to be a bold, future-forward move," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vp entertainment at Chicago-based ad buyer Starcom. "It's a defensive move to keep Jay from going to ABC. But it's an interesting move in the sense that if it can work, it's not a show that you DVR."
The TiVo-busting nature of a daily talk format was one of many arguments that NBC co-chiefs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff made in their appearance with Leno in Burbank on Tuesday. They also touted the addition of Leno as a reinforcement of NBC's comedy brand and the dramatic cost savings achieved by opting out of the scripted business at 10 p.m.
"We can do four five of these shows for the cost of one 10 p.m. drama," Graboff said.
In an appearance later in the day on CNBC, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said the move will allow the network execs to renew their commitment to scripted programing in the rest of primetime.
"You're going to see great scripted programs between 8 and 10," he said. "And this will actually give them a clearer focus."
Silverman noted that NBC could get back into the scripted business on weekends.
"We're going to be able to program Friday more aggressively, we're going to have more scripted on Sunday, we're going to be able to open up more nights," he said.
But the increase in unscripted hours was roundly panned across Hollywood, which will have fewer opportunities to sell its most expensive TV offering.
"It's sad for the business," a top scripted TV agent said Tuesday. "Then again, we haven't launched a scripted hit to justify holding the hour."
Also taking a big loss will be the Screen Actors Guild, which has been embroiled in a labor dispute with the studios. With most 10 p.m. broadcast dramas featuring large ensemble casts that are better paid than their cable counterparts, NBC's move would put hundreds of actors out of work or force them to take pay cuts.
Hardest hit by the move will be the major TV studios, which already grapple with losing primetime real estate to reality TV. While cable is beefing up their scripted lineups, cable's license fees don't come even close to what the studios get for a 10 p.m. broadcast drama.
Noting a growing resemblance between NBC's scheduling and Comedy Central, which has Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's weeknight shows bookmarking primetime programing at 11 p.m., one agent commented, "NBC is going to make one hell of a cable network."
Others expressed doubts that Leno will be able to grow his audience at an earlier hour even with TV amassing more viewers at 10 than 11:30 p.m. But holding firm at its average of 4.8 million viewers can't be considered a success, either, said Jason Maltby, senior VP broadcast at New York-based ad buyer Mindshare.
"That's not exactly a stellar audience for primetime at 10 o'clock," Maltby said. "There has to be something in it besides the economics of saving money in production costs."
But if NBC makes Leno work at 10 p.m., look for rival broadcasters to follow suit, TV historian Tim Brooks said. "NBC is taking one for the team here," he said. "If it works for NBC at any level, a lot of others are going to jump on the bandwagon."
Lisa Howfield, GM of NBC affiliate KVBC-TV Las Vegas, praised the move to 10 p.m., citing the local popularity of a comedian who appears regularly on the Strip. "I feel pretty good about it," she said. "He'll get extra bonus points in this market, where we're pretty familiar with him."
But another GM with an NBC affiliate in a top 20 market shared his reservations. "I'm concerned about this as a strong lead-in to the late news," the executive said. "10 p.m. has never seen programing like this before."
The new Leno program — tentatively called "The Jay Leno Show" — will launch next fall and run originals 46-48 weeks a year. Graboff said that NBC will likely premiere the show a couple of weeks before the traditional premiere week to get a head start on the hour.
Leno said at Tuesday's news conference that his new show won't be a replica of the "Tonight Show" formula even though he plans to take many staples of his current program with him. He did indicate that he planned to shoot more out in the field.
Leno also said he asked NBC to conduct research before the decision to determine whether the model would work. "You don't want to go some place where you're not wanted," he said. At the same time, Leno said he's been anecdotally told for years that fans would like to see his show earlier.
Conan O'Brien addressed the Leno situation on a show he taped Tuesday. "We're thrilled for him and we're thrilled for everybody at 'Tonight,' " he said. "Also, I've talked it over with my producer and that means I can keep doing my Jay Leno impression."