In what has to be the most unusual move by a major network in my memory, NBC will move a new variation of Jay Leno’s late night talk show to the 10 PM primetime slot Monday-Friday starting this fall. In a cost savings measure, NBC believes they will save a ton of money by having five less hours of scripted programming during the week. Considering Leno’s Tonight Show pulls in 4.8 million eyeballs a night (minuscule by prime time standards), this is certainly a perplexing move, a decision clearly based on margins, not ratings. At least that’s the spin the network will try and sell.
It’s estimated Leno’s new deal will cost NBC two million a week compared to an average of three million per scripted program. It’s somewhat surreal that fifteen years ago ER was pulling in 30 million viewers at 10 pm on Thursday night and will now be replaced by the 58 year old talk show host who is currently averaging less than 5 million viewers in his 11:30 PM timeslot. So may I ask, “is NBC throwing up the red flag and finally admitting that the television landscape will never be what it was?” I say YES! There is so much quality competition from cable (both basic and pay) that the days of programming reaching fifteen million a show is OVER! While there’s a handful of these network programs left like CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Dancing with the Stars and American Idol, the majority are struggling to pull in 9 million viewers with many even lower. It will be interesting how NBC affiliates embrace this move and how they’ll react if Leno in primetime doesn’t fly with viewers. How this will affect Conan O’Brien, who takes over the Tonight Show in June of 2009, is a story for another day, but make no mistake, the way networks think going forward has been changed dramatically with this very BOLD move! I can understand why NBC got cold feet and didn’t want to lose Jay to ABC but the decision to move him to primetime five nights a week is a stunner! It will be interesting to see this play out.