Lynette Rice
September 11, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Jay Leno had every reason to bolt from NBC, the network he had called home for more than 17 years. He was compelled to cede The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien, and competitors like ABC were practically building sets to lure the top-rated late-night host. Miraculously, NBC managed to retain Leno with an innovative plan: The affable host, 59, will helm The Jay Leno Show, a five-day-a-week talk show at 10 p.m. that’ll feature a monologue and Leno staples such as ”Jaywalking.” Rounding out the hour will be buzzy musical collaborations (Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna are on tap for the first night) and reports from a roster of correspondents including D.L. Hughley, Ross Mathews, and Rachael Harris (The Hangover). Even Nightly News‘ Brian Williams has agreed to tape the occasional skit.

Naturally, NBC execs either combed through or commissioned lots of research, and based on their findings, are incredibly enthusiastic. A Nielsen survey says that 72 percent of viewers rejected 10 p.m. dramas on the Big Three last year, while an NBC study of 1,338 people found that 71 percent would tune back in if someone offered a show that made them laugh. ”This makes enormous sense,” says Alan Wurtzel, NBC’s head of research. ”It’s a transforming moment. We’re very, very bullish on how we believe Jay will perform.”

Even if Jay at 10 p.m. isn’t a ”transforming moment,” well, that’s okay too. The move is a big financial win for the network. ”You can do five Tonight Shows for less money than showing one 10 o’clock drama,” Leno told reporters last spring. And that doesn’t count the millions that NBC won’t have to spend developing new 10 p.m. dramas that are likely to fail anyway. (Additional research shows that 72 percent of the 10 p.m. dramas that ABC, NBC, and CBS launched between 2004 and ’08 failed to reach a second season.) Plus, there are plenty of opportunities for advertiser integration: The new studio, for example, features a racetrack where celebrities will zoom around in environmentally friendly cars. (Hello, electric Ford Focus!)

All the groundwork sounds promising, but a talk show is only as good as its guests — and that’s another place Leno will have an edge. Not only does he have a reputation as a celeb-friendly, jocular interviewer (Jerry Seinfeld will pop by on Leno’s first night), but he’ll air 90 minutes before any of his competitors — when a whole lot more of America is awake.


Jimmy Kimmel said it best last May: NBC was so desperate to hold on to Leno that it was willing to ”destroy” the network in the process. Destroy is an awfully strong word — but that’s the sentiment among many. Studios are hesitant to work with NBC because it has five fewer hours to program with scripted fare. ”They’ve given up valued real estate,” laments one studio chief. ”They’re making themselves less of a network.”

Or at least one that’s almost all talk. Starting this month, NBC will offer three and a half hours of chatfests every night from Leno to Conan O’Brien to Jimmy Fallon and then Carson Daly (whew!). Not only is viewer fatigue likely, but booking wars are inevitable — especially since Leno will tape only a few miles away from O’Brien, Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson in the L.A. area. Already, ABC and CBS have refused to allow their prime-time stars to do Leno — primarily because Leno competes with ABC and CBS at 10 p.m. As for the A-list movie stars, ”I think Conan is going to have to cede to Jay because his is a prime-time show and, well, Jay is Jay,” predicts one high-powered publicist.

And what if Leno tanks? Local news programs will certainly feel the pain because they rely heavily on their network lead-ins at 10 p.m. to prop up their ratings. A Boston affiliate was so worried, it considered airing Leno’s show at another time in the evening.

NBC will have the added burden of filling the time period if Leno burns out on one or more nights. (Leno has a two-year deal, although the network can cancel him at any time.) Installments of Dateline could possibly fill the bill in the short term, but ”if Leno doesn’t work, NBC has allowed the other networks to get more entrenched in the time slot,” adds the studio chief. ”It will be hard to win those time periods back.”

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