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Jay at 10: Bad for Business, Good For TV?

December 14th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

By now, you’ve likely heard that Jay Leno will be taking over a third of NBC primetime next year. Most of the reaction I’ve read is along the lines of David Bianculli’s, that this will be “good for business, bad for TV.” I disagree.

The “good for business” line looks at the relative cost of production. Jay himself costs a lot, but the show is dead cheap in Hollywood terms. The “good for business” line also counts on Jay being able to bring his Nielsen audience to NBC primetime. Bianculli adds that this helps NBC keep Jay (though at what price?). And Derek Kompare speculates that NBC could lock down an older audience rather than chasing a fickle younger one with various scripted options.

But, as I said, I’m not convinced. Why? More below …

First, I think this reeks of waving the white flag. They’re suffering, and now they’ve confirmed that they’re suffering more than anyone else. Even if adding Jay pays off for their 10-11pm slot, what’s the cost? They’ve effectively announced, to advertisers, to viewers, and to writers, that they suck at scripted (or even reality) television to the point that they’ll axe a third of it. They’re telling us that they’re the GM of TV. How is that meant to inspire confidence for advertisers (especially when, as Amanda Lotz’s work on Upfronts points out, a lot of ad selling is about building confidence in supposedly bright futures)? How is it meant to assure viewers of the strength of the NBC brand, especially if that brand was supposed to be about quality television? And how is it meant to invite writers to bring their A-material to NBC first (“sorry Mr. Sorkin, we like your work, but we decided instead to feature an interview with Rob Schneider about Deuce Bigalow: Medieval Gigolo”)?

Second, I don’t believe that people want to watch Jay at 10 pm (or, much less, 9 central). This isn’t a comment on how unfunny Jay usually is (though, hey, since I brought it up, let’s add that to the mix). But some television is made for specific times of the day. Did NBC look at DVR figures, for instance, and see how many people watch their recorded Jay or Conan or Letterman at 9pm? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt they’d find a landslide. Late night talk shows are designed for the end of the day, and they fill that timeslot very well. Roger Silverstone did excellent work on the ritual value of television, observing how we often ask it to offer ontological security, to tell us everything’s alright in the morning, and to reassure us with banal chit chat late at night. These are shows to watch before one goes to bed, or at least before one turns off the television and starts to wind down.  So what NBC is betting on, I believe, is how many people want to go to bed early … and, as a correlate, how much advertisers want to talk to those people.

Third, and to respectfully disagree with my buddy Derek Kompare, I’m not so sure that an older audience will follow Jay to 10 pm. CBS traditionally does great business in that 10-11 pm timeslot, and that slightly older audience is one that CBS knows and has cultivated. Derek himself predicts that CSI: Miami will make a killing on Monday nights, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see CBS rule supreme in that timeslot throughout the week. Quick, check, did Sumner Redstone recently purchase a lot of NBC shares?

So, I don’t think it’s good for business.

But maybe it’s not all that bad for TV either. If I’m right (and that, admittedly, is a big if), with The CW and FOX not broadcasting from 10-11 pm, one’s choices for traditional network fare will soon be reduced to CBS or ABC. Which, the way CBS and ABC are going, this will mean one option that’s traditionally “guy TV,” one that’s traditionally “chick TV.” How many people will ask what else is on? With a growing number of excellent shows to be found on cable, maybe NBC has just done a great favor to cable channels. If the Prime Time Access Rule once closed 7-8pm to the networks, I wonder whether this move will contribute further to closing 10-11pm to them, encouraging people to explore deeper into their menu of 100+ channels. While that process may hurt the big bucks financing model of network primetime television, if cable can offer such fare as Mad Men and BSG, and if audiences can at times get edgier, more boldly creative material as a result, maybe it’s about time the networks shifted to a similar model?

I don’t like the idea of Jay Leno getting all that time on television. But if he gets it, nobody watches, and it helps TV get better, maybe a Jay (and a peacock) falling in the forest with nobody hearing will be fine.

UPDATE: Ken Levine has a nice script treatment of the decision over at his blog, well worth the read, especially for Simpsons fans.

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  1. Amanda D. Lotz
    December 22nd, 2008 at 11:29 | #1

    I continue to be shocked by this move–trying to imagine how this could work (why Leno of all people–besides the obvious desire not to have him competing at 11:30 on ABC), and why it was the best move. 10:00 is such a prestige hour, the space of sophisticated, more adult television (or is that just being conceded to cable now), and long argued as crucial to the local nightcasts. I wonder if NBC considered giving the 8:00-9:00 hour back to the affiliates to program instead.

    Yet, I’m aware of how silly this attention to “time” is given the increasing tendency of viewers to use DVRs to disrupt the linear experience. I guess I’d have more faith if NBC announced it was going to do something more inspired than Deal or No Deal and Gladiators with the remaining hours of the line-up.

    I also think it important not to set up what is good for TV and what is good for business as mutually exclusive. One thing NBC (albeit a very different Tartikoff NBC) once taught us with The Cosby Show, is that good, and boundary breaking TV can be very good for business as well.

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