The morning after NBC made it official, we all need to put the announcement of Jay Leno moving from late-night into primetime in 2009 into perspective.
First, realize and recognize that while Leno's fall 2009 show will air weeknights at 10 p.m. on the East and West coasts, he'll actually be on at 9 p.m. in the Central and Mountain time zones! When Leno told the press yesterday that 10:30 was the new 11:30 for many folks, he could have and should have said that for all of middle America, that long has been the case. Instead, when I heard Leno tell NBC Universal sibling show Access Hollywood (their studios are literally across the hallway from Leno's studio in Burbank) that “11:30 seems really late to most people,” what I heard translated as most people = old people?! That Leno asked NBC to do research (focus groups, anyone?) and found that his audience wanted to see him earlier, that only bolsters this circumstantial claim that Leno's ratings will fall outside the 18-49 demo.
Ah, ratings. In the just completed November sweeps season, Leno's Tonight Show averaged 4.9 million viewers (though only 1.7 million fell within the 18-49 age bracket), for a 1.3 rating and 5 share.
How does that compare to NBC's current programming in that hour? Last Thursday, Dec. 5, ER finished third for NBC with 8.2 million viewers (3.2/10 in the 18-49 demo), while Eleventh Hour got 10.9 million for CBS and a Barbara Walters special on ABC won with 13.2 million viewers. Then again, on Monday, Dec. 8, NBC earned only 4 million viewers for lame-duck drama My Own Worst Enemy.
So maybe Jeff Zucker and his braintrust at the Peacock Network crunched the numbers and decided, hey, even if Leno doesn't expand his current audience base by going earlier, his show will at least give us no worse than our worst 2008 scripted programming in the hour. As Zucker argued earlier in the week to investors, it's not as if NBC has to offer scripted shows. FOX and The CW do news in the 10 p.m. block. And it wasn't that many years ago that NBC was willing to air Dateline NBC five nights a week. If we can watch predators get caught night after night, is it really that much of a stretch to watch Leno catch "Jaywalkers" on a more regular basis?
Of course, FOX and The CW don't have a reputation as a Big Three TV network to uphold, and well, NBC hasn't even ranked third in a while. They cannot get mainstream America to embrace their best-received sitcoms (30 Rock and The Office), and have alienated rabid fans of other shows (see: Heroes). A look at any week's top 20 most popular shows barely mentions NBC. What has held up for the network late in primetime has been the venerable Law & Order franchises. Though a few critics wondered about putting the "adult" topics of SVU into an earlier hour, they should just turn the dial to find any number of L&O repeats airing night and day on cable, and realize that 9 p.m. isn't going to make that much of a difference for first-run episodes.
As for Leno, he'll be up against the crimetime primetime lineup on CBS, with the three CSI hours, Without A Trace, Eleventh Hour and Numb3rs. ABC has had problems with most of its 10 p.m. shows this fall. Viewers looking for cheap thrills and laughs -- Leno's audience, presumably -- already have their favorite shows in this hour on cable, with nets such as Bravo and Comedy Central scheduling their top originals here.
On top of all of this, the trades argue that viewers are using 10 p.m. to watch shows from earlier in the night on their DVRs, so that’s not going to provide much solace to Leno or NBC.
Much less Conan O'Brien, who thought he was going to be top dog inheriting The Tonight Show on June 1, 2009, only to find he'll have Leno still on before him -- and without this so-called "lead-in" because the late local news will serve as a buffer. Jimmy Fallon, in his second video message early this morning, noted wryly that he'll have viewers contending with two hours of talk and a half-hour of news before they can get to his new hour of talk. Good luck with that, Jimmy! The Screen Actors Guild, already threatening a strike, too, certainly cannot be thrilled with this prospect, either, knowing they're losing five hours of programming that provided hundreds of steady acting gigs.
Other than that, win-win, right, fellas!