Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jay Leno's new job -- we called it

By Rick Morris

We hate to blow our own horn, but, "Toot, toot!"

Last July, we evaluated the options presented by Entertainment Weekly regarding Jay Leno's job possibilities when his "Tonight Show" contract expires next May. We laid odds for all of the scenarios, and what did we call the favorite?

"Staying in the NBC Universal television family. NBC will pull out all the stops to continue utilizing Leno in either a singular role or a multitude of roles across channels. With several cable channels that could benefit from his presence (including USA and Bravo) and NBC potentially dangling a 10 PM talk show that could air on the big network a few nights a week, the possibility of hanging around the present environs in a kind of Tom Brokaw Elder Statesman role could appeal greatly to him. Also, Leno cannot legally entertain any other offers before November 2009 and can't move anywhere until the next year, so any acceptance of another job would have to wait until well after his final program. Hence, unless he accepts an offer to stay put before the farewell tour commences, he will leave under a cloud of uncertainty and intrigue as to what his next move will be -- something that cannot thrill NBC."

And so it happened -- Leno is staying at NBC for a show that sounds like it would be much like his present one, except that it obviously won't be called "The Tonight Show" and it will air every night from 10-11 PM EST.

There doesn't seem to be anything to disagree with in the early conventional wisdom. NBC is a big winner here, since they don't have to worry about him picking up and moving to a competitor (most likely ABC) and taking the battle to Conan O'Brien in late night. Plus, even with Leno's huge salary, the programming costs for the 10 PM EST hour just plummeted dramatically, a not-insubstantial consideration in a horrible and worsening economy.

Leno also comes out of the deal in good shape, making a nice chunk of change and not having to pick up and move to a new network. As a reputed creature of habit, the fact that this scenario allows for great continuity was probably a big consideration. The guess is that his ratings will probably translate decently, with the ability to beat all but the toughest of competitors (i.e. CSI). If that is the case, he will preserve a top-tier talk show legacy, as a man who stepped into huge shoes and successfully fended off a tough challenge from David Letterman for almost the entire time they went head-to-head and then did well in prime time.

If there is a loser in this picture, and it's unclear that there is, it could be Conan. Might his guest-booking suffer because of having to share A-listers with a big-timer on his own network? How is he going to fare with Leno potentially overshadowing him before the late local news and Jimmy Fallon getting a lot of buzz for his new 12:30 show? Like Letterman, he'll face questions about whether his act will translate to an earlier -- and older -- audience. Will he water down his show to compete like "11:30 Dave" did years ago -- and if he does, can he be successful? While we now know the shape of the talk-show battles ahead, we still don't know how each of the players involved will fare. In the spring, late-night TV enters its most interesting and consequential period since the Carson/Leno/Dave/Conan shuffle of '92-'93. Don't be surprised if success by Leno at 10:00 leads to questioning about the positioning of prime assets in prime time as opposed to late night.

No comments: