NBC's 10 p.m. Jay Leno move is fraught with risk
With its decision to give Jay Leno a block of prime time Monday through Friday, NBC has essentially given up on scripted programming at 10 p.m.
This is a noteworthy shift. In the past, the 10 p.m. time slot has yielded such legendary shows as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," and "ER," which will wrap up its 15-year run in March. But as Channel Island reported earlier this year, the networks have mostly bombed with new 10 p.m. dramas this fall. NBC has already canceled the costly Christian Slater caper "My Own Worst Enemy," and ABC will move the cop drama "Life on Mars" to another night in search of more viewers.
The problem is that scripted dramas are expensive to produce -- episode costs routinely exceed $2 million these days -- and face increasingly tough competition from cable networks. Leno's show, which reportedly will be very similar to his version of "The Tonight Show," will look like an exercise in thrift compared with a dramatic series that employs a large cast and writing staff.
And yet NBC's latest move is fraught with risk. For starters, if Leno's new program flops -- and remember, it will be competing not against "Nightline" and David Letterman but rather with the likes of "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY" -- the network will be stuck with five hours per week of low-rated programming that may be difficult to get rid of.
Second, the network is going to have to find new homes for the current series that reside at 10 p.m., including the popular "Law & Order: SVU." Moving an existing hit is in itself dicey and can unleash a domino-like effect of lowered ratings across the schedule. And the crowding of NBC's remaining dramas, presumably into the 9 p.m. time slot, will reduce the need for new scripted one-hour series to perhaps one per season, if that (which may be exactly what NBC Universal's profit-minded boss Jeff Zucker wants to hear). The message to agents representing top writers is clear: If you have hot material, you might want to take it to a place where the executives are a little hungrier for it.
And then there's the Conan factor. A major impetus behind the Leno deal was the desire not to lose the host to a competitor next year, when "The Tonight Show" is taken over by Conan O'Brien. But the latest shift has now put O'Brien in an awkward position. Not long after O'Brien takes over the "Tonight" franchise, his predecessor will in effect be promoted to prime time, doing essentially the same show he's doing now. That will put even more pressure on O'Brien to put his own stamp on "Tonight."
And if O'Brien's ratings sink below what Leno was doing behind the late-night desk? NBC just handed him one heck of an excuse.
-- Scott Collins