Leno Show Moves to Prime Time


Moving Jay Leno to prime time is another bold stroke from NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker. But will it pay off?

I have to admit: I admire Jeff Zucker. Sure, the NBC Universal chief executive is a tad hyperactive and can be a little glib. And his elbows are sharp enough that a lot of folks in Hollywood complain of perpetually sore ribs. But in moving his business ahead, the guy sure knows how to find—and exploit—the things that other people miss. This is the guy who virtually invented "supersize" TV shows that added a few extra minutes to some of NBC's then-hot shows to keep viewers from flipping the channel.

His latest gambit is moving late-night talk show host Jay Leno to prime time, and it strikes me as exactly the kind of thing that other executives are probably pounding their heads over this morning and saying, "Why the heck didn't I think of that?" But will it work? I'd have to call it a long shot (and that's only because I like the guy).

Competing with Cop Shows

NBC clearly has the rap down. In a press conference, it promoted The Jay Leno Show as five nights a week of 10 p.m. counterprogramming against the seemingly endless stream of lame-brain cop and legal shows that are sinking faster in the ratings than a dying patient on ER. "Clearly today's viewers have an appetite for live, topical programming, and that's what we're bringing to prime time," says Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. And darn if he might not be right: This is the network, after all, that hurried up some prime-time outtakes from its hilarious Saturday Night Live segments on Sarah Palin and other candidates, scoring some much-needed Nielsen points.

Jay is another matter. He's plenty funny and has a pretty good-size audience—4.6 million folks a night for his 11:30 gig, according to Nielsen. (That's about 1 million more viewers than David Letterman's show on CBS (CBS).) But that's still way, way down from a show like NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which brings in 9 million viewers, or even the slowly slipping-away ER, mercifully in its last season and drawing 7.7 million viewers.

O.K., so you say I should give Jay a break: Most people usually nod off by the time Jay hits the tube at 11:30. More folks are watching TV at 10 p.m. anyway, and they'll probably stick around for Jay's monologue, or his "Jaywalking" bit walking through Universal's theme park and interviewing any lame movie star waddling by. I'll buy that. In fact, Nielsen says HUT use (that's Nielsen-speak for homes using TVs) is up by about 50% at 10 p.m. over the 11:30 time slot. So, heck, let's hike Jay's 4.6 million viewers by, say, 50%, giving him the benefit of the doubt. That means he gets a whopping 6.9 million viewers, or not much more than the number of folks who tuned in this year to NBC's snorefest, Las Vegas.

The Price May Be Right

Maybe I'm underestimating Jeff Zucker & Co. This is not just about drawing big audiences. This is about packing the bottom line. Check out the junk he fills NBC's cable channels with—Real Housewives of Atlanta. (Oh, please.) But the cable channels make money, buckets of it, by creating cheap shows that bring in enough viewers to ring the registers. Jay should do that as well. He's likely to get a $30 million salary, but his shows will only cost $2 million a week or so to produce, even with his salary factored in. Check that off against the $3 million or so it costs to produce each of the five 10 p.m. shows that NBC puts in the time slots that Jay will replace, and you're mucho millions ahead.

This is not to suggest Zucker should get ready to do some victory laps—at least, not just yet. He did manage to keep Jay from jumping to ABC. (Leno says that was a rumor started by "a disgruntled employee—me.") Will Jay's old viewers still stick around to watch Conan O'Brien at 11:30 after Jay has tickled their funny bones? And will the folks who follow Jay to the new time slot have the right demographics for TV advertisers? Jay's viewers have a median age of 55, according to Nielsen, compared with the average NBC 10 p.m. viewer of about 52. Might not sound like much to you and me, but to advertisers who think consumers are no longer relevant after the age of 54 this is serious stuff. (Indeed, Jay's ads sell for $43,100 for 30 seconds, according to Nielsen, compared with NBC's $152,000 price tag for its regularly scheduled shows.)

Let's just say that Jay does bring in those 7 million or so viewers after moving to 10 p.m, and he gets a nice bump up in ad sales, maybe to, say, $110,000 for 30 seconds. Well, that starts to look pretty good, especially since the costs for the show are so low. "This is a show that could also be great for product placements," adds Brad Adgate, a senior vice-president at Horizon Media Research. Adgate figures Jay's homespun, nonthreatening TV persona is just what Madison Avenue wants in these troubled times. Maybe.

Too Much Jay?

But can America take five nights a week of Jay Leno in prime time, no matter how saccharine his delivery? I recall that TV viewers OD'd on too many days of Regis Philbin and his monocolored ties on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Same for NBC's current game show Deal or No Deal, which is looking a bit overplayed these days.

All of which means that, once his show starts airing this fall, Jay had better bring something new to prime time. That brings me back to Jeff Zucker, who somehow always manages to come up with something that, at the very least, is interesting. Sometimes it works, too.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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