Not a huge fan of Jay Leno's prime-time show on NBC? Neither is Jay Leno! ''Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure,'' the Jay Leno Show host said in a surprisingly candid interview with Broadcasting & Cable last week. That's a stunning revelation from a man who just five months ago bragged that ''10 o'clock is the new 11:30'' and that NBC ''can do five Tonight Shows for less money than one 10 o'clock drama.'' But, of course, that was before Leno premiered his earlier, five-nights-a-week talk show and saw his audience plummet from 18.4 million to 4.3 million in just seven weeks. These days, Leno is averaging 2.5 million fewer viewers than NBC's dramas like Law & Order: SVU and ER attracted at this time last year. And the bleeding doesn't stop there: Ratings are down for the post-Leno local newscasts in seven of NBC's top 10 markets, and a half hour later Conan O'Brien is routinely losing to David Letterman.
NBC declined to comment for this story but insiders continue to push the notion that putting Leno at 10 p.m. was always about economics, not ratings. It's still cheaper to make a talk show than an hour-long drama, and even Leno admitted that his threshold for success is (ridiculously) low. ''I'm told if we can keep a 1.5 [rating], they make $300 million a year; this is what they say,'' he explained. ''So we're a little above the 1.5, we're doing okay.''
But at what cost? ''They gave up being a 22-hour network like ABC and CBS,'' snipes one Big Four competitor. ''They may be making $300 million, but how much does that offset what they might be losing in other [ways]?'' Indeed, Leno's struggle has not only allowed CBS to continue its domination at 10 p.m., it's also given ABC a much-needed chance to catch up the network's dramas like Castle, The Forgotten, and Private Practice are up 16 percent among young adults versus the same time slot last year. Meanwhile, CBS is able to command ad rates north of $120,000 per 30-second spot for its 10 p.m. dramas while NBC is lucky to collect $60,000 for a commercial spot on Leno, according to a survey by Ad Age.
NBC maintains that Leno's ratings will tick up once CBS and ABC dramas go into reruns and Leno continues producing original episodes. The problem with that argument is that cable networks will still be airing new episodes and Leno is starting to flirt with those types of numbers; on a recent Tuesday night, he drew fewer young adults than FX's Sons of Anarchy.
For now, the network's affiliates are trying to remain optimistic. ''Do we want higher ratings? Sure,'' says NBC affiliates board chairman Michael Fiorile. ''However much time has to pass be it four or six months if we're not seeing any improvement, then we'll start asking questions.'' Here's one to chew on while they wait: What shape will NBC be in at that point?