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December 10, 2008 |

By Seth Freilich | Industry | December 10, 2008 |

Yesterday, Dustin went off on a rant about NBC’s decision to put Leno on five nights a week at 10 p.m. Now I don’t loathe Leno the way Dustin does, although I’m not particularly happy about NBC’s decision either. But I am intrigued by the move, and here’s where I’m going to beg to differ with Dustin, because I think that NBC has taken a low-risk gamble at a possible game changing situation.

While I don’t loathe Leno, I don’t like him either. He’s just warm milk to me — bland, generic, tame and completely harmless. Which is, of course, why he’s done well with “The Tonight Show.” And why NBC was scared shitless of an any angry Leno taking root in another network’s 11:30 timeslot and wiping the floor with Conan. I love Conan, you love Conan, we all love Conan. But I’m not sure that the general populous will love Conan. To some extent “The Tonight Show” is a cult of personality. People don’t tune in because it’s “The Tonight Show.” They used to tune in because it was Johnny Carson’s show, and now they tune in because it’s Leno’s show. Will those same people stay tuned in for the next Pimpbot and Masturbating Bear? Some will. And some new folks will follow Conan to his early timeslot. But many people are going to be turned off and, if given the chance to follow Leno to another spot on the dial, they’d do so. So first and foremost, this is a smart way for NBC to save face.

And if Leno simply tanks on his new timeslot, he’ll still wind up leaving NBC far less acrimoniously than before, because at least NBC tried to work something out with him. But will Leno simply tank? Dustin asks who will watch “The Tonight Show” if Leno is on beforehand, pilfering Conan’s guests and beating him to the punch on the good jokes. His second point is a non-starter. Dustin and I can both agree that most of Leno’s jokes aren’t “good.” To us. And that’s the point — the folks who tune in for Leno’s spin on things aren’t the same ones who will tune in for Conan. And even if they are — so what? I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, back to back four nights a week, despite the fact that they both work with the same starting material. Because I like the takes that each show has. If I liked Leno, I’d have no problem watching him and then tuning in for Conan a little while later. And Dustin’s first point, about pilfered guests, is just silly because there are plenty of guests to go ‘round. And frankly, if Leno pilfers some A-name celebs from Conan, all the better for Conan, as he’s generally at his best with second-fiddle types anyway.

But nobody will watch Leno religiously, Dustin says. We don’t care, NBC says. Right now, there’s nobody who watches all five of NBC’s 10 p.m. shows religiously. And NBC is realistic enough to know that the case won’t change with Leno. But take the-hypothetical-me-who-would-even-be-inclined-to-watch-Leno-in-the-first-place. Let’s say that, last night, I didn’t want to watch “Eli Stone” or “Without a Trace” (which I didn’t). Instead of heading to the DVR (which I did), maybe I would’ve tuned in to see what Leno had to say about Blagojevich (oh the wacky fun he can have with that name!). Extra pair of eyes for NBC. And tonight, I’ll be watching “Dirty Sexy Money” (RIP). But the guy who doesn’t want to watch that or “CSI:NY” may flip over to Leno, given the choice. Different pair of eyes, but an extra pair nonetheless. And don’t forget the many weeks of reruns, when folks who do watch another 10 p.m. show suddenly find themselves looking for something new and — oh, hey, it’s “an all new” episode of Leno tonight. Plus, the-hypothetical-me and those other guys all know that we can flip over to NBC on any given night because it won’t be a procedural, or a serial we haven’t been watching from the beginning. It’s light and easy, no-strings viewing. And for a network whose ratings are in the tank, it’s not the worst gamble to try to get some new eyes. (Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of people fast asleep or already done with TV by 11:30 who may welcome the chance to watch Leno at a more reasonable hour now and then — I don’t understand those people, but they’re out there.)

And what if NBC’s ratings don’t increase, you ask? That’s ok too, because its pockets will be fuller anyway. This week, NBC’s 10 p.m. slot is filled with “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Law & Order,” “ER” and “Dateline NBC.” Leno will be getting somewhere on the order of $30 million a year. But that, plus the costs of production, will still be far less than the current 10 p.m. slate costs NBC (I’d guess at least $10 million per week). Not to mention advertisers know what they’re getting with Leno, whereas they don’t know how many episodes that new scripted show will even air. If nothing else, I guarantee NBC will make more money in the 09/10 season than this season.

So I don’t think this is NBC giving up. I think it’s a network (and the raging disappointment that Ben Silverman has turned out to be at putting together a nighttime schedule) recognizing that it can get by with 10 hours of scheduling on Monday-Friday rather than 15. Which means we won’t have to suffer through next year’s “Knight Rider,” because it’ll never be greenlit in the first place. The network will be just a little less desperate for series programming, which affords it the chance to be a little more discerning. Of course, there’s a price to pay, because one wonders if a show like “Law & Order: SVU” will be able to survive at an earlier timeslot. So NBC may wind up losing one of its hits (which would be okay because the best thing about the show is Hargitay and Meloni, and this would free them up for better material).

Lastly, remember this — Fox has gotten by with two hours of programming per night from Day One, and it’s doing just fine these days (to NBC’s shagrin). The networks are all bleeding viewers to cable and iTunes and DVDs and DVRs. If NBC does well-enough with this, which I think is more likely than not, you better believe that CBS and ABC (which, you’ll remember, just canceled two of its own 10 p.m. shows because of shit ratings) will take notice. In a couple of years, if you want a series show at 10 p.m., you may not be watching any of the big four. And that’s why this could be a game-changer. It could ultimately lead to less chafe on the big four, a whole new set of options at 10 p.m., and an opportunity for some of the cable networks to take more of a hold by offering their own original programming at 10 p.m.

It could also amount to a whole lot of nothing and, two years from now, things could be just as they are now. But like it or lump it, NBC has made a safe and calculated move which could change a piece of the TV landscape that’s looked the same for a long time.

…Still doesn’t mean I’ll be watching Leno, mind you. I’m just saying.

Counterpoint / Seth Freilich

Industry | December 10, 2008 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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