Jay Leno is staying at NBC.
The netork has signed the popular "Tonight Show" host to a new agreement whereby Leno will receive a talk show airing weeknights at 10 p.m. The move will allow NBC to keep Leno from going to a rival broadcaster without breaking the network's agreement with Conan O'Brien to take over "The Tonight Show" next year.
The new deal is expected to be announced tomorrow at a press conference.
The news comes on the heels of NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker saying the network was considering reducing its number of programming hours. With a new Leno show, NBC is, in a sense, doing just that -- moving a talk show into a slot intended for entertainment programming and leaving only two hours per weeknight to fill with original series.
Leno is expected to step down from "The Tonight Show" at end of the season; his new series would presumably start next fall. No format details are yet available, but Leno has repeatedly said he was only interested in continuing to host a show with a traditional "Tonight Show" format.
The move will take pressure off NBC's struggling entertainment department, and impacts the competitive field in significant ways. Though rivals might be disappointed that Leno will not be on the market next year, CBS and ABC will benefit by no longer having to compete with NBC's 10 p.m. drama efforts such as "Law & Order: SVU."
And though NBC is doubtless relieved to keep Leno from straying, NBC's already extensive talk-show lineup means NBC will be programming more talk-show hours than entertainment hours during the week. Conan O'Brien will have to contend with continuing as NBC's second-string talk-show host. While Jimmy Fallon, taking over "Late Night," and Carson Daly's "Last Call," now relegated to third- and fourth-string, respectively.
That's assuming, of course, that NBC leaves the rest of its late-night lineup intact.
As host of "The Tonight Show," Leno has averaged 4.8 million viewers and a 1.3 rating this season. Industry insiders say they expect NBC will be able to grow that number given the new show's earlier time period, but not to a degree that will make a talk show competitive with most dramas airing at 10 p.m.
"This is a win-win for everyone," said Shari Anne Brill, a programming expert and executive with New York-based ad buyer Carat. "Jay was not ready to call it a night. Why would you want to lose a talent like that to the other guys? Why would you want to give ABC an opportunity like that?"
Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate said that the move would not only keep Leno at NBC but it would have the added benefit of not being as expensive as a drama that would cost millions of dollars to produce. Adgate wasn't bothered by the format, rumored to be a talk show and/or variety program.
"Talk shows work in daytime and they work in late night and they work in cable at that hour and in primetime," Adgate said. "The question, it's not so much the size of the audience as it is about can they make a profit out of it?"
He said that it's unclear whether it would have an impact on "The Tonight Show" once O'Brien takes over, but said the new program might increase Leno's younger viewership.
"Maybe he'll bring in some other viewers who may not be able to stay up late for 'The Tonight Show,' " Brill said.
My thoughts: The biggest losers in all of this mess are Conan O'Brien (with Jimmy Fallon a distant recipient of the waves) and late night talk shows in general. Will there be an appetitie for three late night comedy shows ("Tonight," "Late Night" and "Last Call") now that a similar show will air 90 minutes earlier? And that's just one network, NBC. Conan was poised to become that network's signature star and now he'll play second fiddle to the network's newest (and well established) primetime star. Unless Leno reworks his format into a hybrid involving news, variety and God-knows-what (besides stand-up and skits) most people will tune out at 11:30PM or DVR it (along with "Stewart," "Letterman," "Colbert," etc.), driving Conan's ratings further down.
If I were Conan O'Brien I'd be seriously looking at my options. Better to be a big fish in a smaller pond (ABC, Fox, etc.) than second-fiddle to Leno. Letterman walked away from his burning desire to get "The Tonight Show" when he realized it wasn't Carson's show anymore but 'The Jay Leno' show he'd be inheriting. Now that Leno will be doing the national comedy hour at 10PM nationally (and 9PM Central!) the value of "Tonight" as a franchise is seriously diminished. All of this, of course, assuming Leno's primetime ratings are sustainable over an extended period of years. And then of course there's the 'what if?' when Leno wants to retire five, ten or more years from now. But that requires long-term thinking and planning, something Zucker and Silverman have proven to not be equipped to handle.
Also, a large amount of Leno's guests on his current NBC show are actors/guest stars plugging their latest projects/appearances airing on 10PM network shows. Will 'The Jay Leno Show' (TM), for example, feature an interview with "Eleventh Hour" star Rufus Sewell on the same day/night both shows are airing at the same time? Will "Numb3rs" star Rob Morrow show up to plug his show on NBC while being opposite it? Even if the guests are scheduled to not compete against their own shows, they'd still be appearing on an NBC show that's essentially trying to take viewers away from their own show. It's different sitting on Jay's couch when he's on at 11:30PM, but at 10:00PM? He's the competition now! How freaking awkward this dynamic of a talk show fueled by star appearances competing against some of those stars' 10PM TV shows will be! Regardless, 10PM shows like "Without A Trace" and "CSI: New York" will benefit from having NBC's "Law & Order" shows (particularly "SVU," a demo magnet that bitch-slaps "WAT" in the golden 18-49 ratings) suddenly replaced by a talk/comedy show that will be considered a hit if it averages 6+ million viewers (versus the 8-11 million the "L&O" shows were pulling).
This is huge!