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With New Show, Leno Stays At NBC


This morning, NBC announced a huge change for its prime time lineup in the fall. Jay Leno will host a show five nights a week at 10 p.m. He's been said to retire this year from "The Tonight Show" for quite some time. Now, as NPR's Kim Masters reports, NBC is making a big gamble because it's in deep trouble in the prime time ratings.

KIM MASTERS: Jay Leno has used his monologue to joke about the troubles at his network.

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): The government has set a precedent, that if you're a large corporation losing money, you know, due to lack in creativity and poor decisions, well, the government will just send you a check. Yeah. So, good news for NBC. We're getting a check! Yeah!

MASTERS: But it may be Leno who rides to NBC's rescue, and he could be helping the network cope with dismal ratings for five prime time hours a week. At a press conference this morning, network co-chairman Mark Graboff was clearly pleased.

Mr. MARK GRABOFF (Network Co-Chairman, NBC): The planets aligned perfectly. This is the right show at the right time with exactly the right person. And we're just thrilled to announce that Jay is staying with NBC and is going to be in our family for a long time to come.

MASTERS: Leno seemed happy, too, and said the new show will feature a lot of material that sounds a lot like the Tonight Show.

Mr. LENO: Obviously, people like the monologue, that seems to work, the drop-ins, the news, topical stuff. I'll probably take headlines, people like that, man on the street stuff. It won't be exactly the same, but those elements will remain.

MASTERS: Five years ago, NBC decided to push Leno into retirement in May 2009 and hand over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien. The network has been trying to figure out a way to keep Leno ever since.

Most observers were convinced Leno would set up a competing show at ABC at 11:30, but NBC's desperation created an opportunity. The network's prime time schedule this fall has been a litany of failure, including the expensive drama, "My Own Worst Enemy" which was canceled after four airings.

Mr. FRED SILVERMAN (Former Television Executive): They have a horrendous problem in prime time.

MASTERS: Fred Silverman is a television legend who has been a top executive at CBS, ABC and NBC.

Mr. SILVERMAN: And in one fell swoop, they programmed 10 o'clock, and I think they'll get very good ratings at probably a third of what it costs to put expensive scripted programming in there.

MASTERS: Silverman says Leno's audience will gladly follow him to the 10 o'clock time slot, and he'll attract new viewers as well. But long-time industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt says there's a risk. He remembers when ABC programmed its giant hit, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," five nights a week. It worked for a brief time before it failed, leaving a gaping hole in ABC's prime time. And that could happen to NBC with Leno.

Mr. LARRY GERBRANDT (Founder, Media Valuation Partners): If it works, it's brilliant. If it doesn't, they could be left with a bigger problem than they have now.

MASTERS: In the late-night competition, many in the industry feel that the biggest loser is Conan O'Brien. Leno will have the first crack at the best guests and first crack at the topical humor of the day. But looking at the television landscape more broadly, Fred Silverman finds it a bit sad that a major broadcaster like NBC isn't even going to try to come up with dramas for a big chunk of prime time. To him, this is part of a decline that will transform the television landscape.

Mr. SILVERMAN: You can see a world where, in five years, there'll be one or two broadcast networks.

MASTERS: The experiment with Leno could determine whether NBC will be one of the survivors. Kim Masters, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kim Masters
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She joined NPR in 2003.