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09.13.09

Hollywood vs. Leno

Many in Hollywood are hopeful Jay Leno fails. The reason? His show signals the end of the good old days for anyone who isn’t a comic, says Kim Masters.

The new Jay Leno Show finally premiered Monday night, and oh, how passionately many in Hollywood are rooting for him to fail.

They know it won’t happen right away. Leno is taking a running start, a week before the other broadcast networks roll out their fall programming. Viewers will check out the new and much-publicized show. And when it comes to defining success, NBC has set the bar down there, right next to your ankles.

But given time, Hollywood surely hopes for the opportunity to spin Leno as a failure—because this experiment pisses a lot of people off. Their world is changing—has already changed, really—in the vise of the economy and new technology. By putting Leno in prime time five nights a week, NBC is proclaiming that the old paradigms are dying and the good old days are gone for good.

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This threatens pretty much everyone in the business who isn’t a comic: executives, agents, writers, actors—even the madmen on Madison Avenue are mad. And it’s not just that they’re running scared about the future of their business; it’s the injustice of it all. The industry must watch while NBC claims to be blazing a trail when, in the majority view, it is simply failing—again. The network has used this tactic for years, ever since the dominant Thursday-night lineup anchored by Friends sank.

Even Leno seems to be pissed off. When reporters asked last month whether he felt pressure to “save” NBC, he answered, “The network is on its own. Screw them.” A couple of weeks later, Leno seemed to gloat when he told reporters that if his show fails, NBC might just have to “go back to Lipstick Jungle.” And that does seem to sum it up: NBC Universal entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin told The Wall Street Journal last week that if the Leno show doesn’t work, “to say that I have a clear backup plan would be exaggerating."

But what makes the whole situation especially provoking is this time NBC may not be wrong. It’s been a long time since one of the networks launched a hit drama at 10 p.m., and the competition becomes more daunting all the time. They don’t just have to deal with competition from cable channels and on-demand viewing—the “DVR channel” is gradually spreading to more and more homes. Fred Silverman, who at varying times ran NBC, CBS, and ABC, believes NBC will do sufficiently well with the Leno show that other broadcast networks will have to put cheap programming—not costly dramas—at 10 p.m., too.

Jon Caramanica: The Other LenosMany who work in and around the industry hope that doesn’t happen. “I don’t see this as a paradigm shift,” says Shari Anne Brill of the ad-buying firm Carat. The Leno strategy may work for NBC, Brill says, but she doesn’t think CBS and ABC will have to follow suit. NBC hasn’t changed the business, in other words; it has simply given up any hope of returning to dominance. This fall, she observes, “NBC is programming the same number of scripted hours as the CW.”

And a former studio chief says it’s silly to abandon scripted shows at 10 p.m. NBC may save money, he says, but what is it giving up? A successful drama can sell into syndication and overseas, he says, while Leno cannot. So comparing the cost of Leno to the cost of scripted programming is “not honest.” And while the Leno show may be cheap, so are the ad rates. At this point, NBC is selling commercial time in the Leno show for about half of what it would get for a spot in a scripted hour.

And there are risks beyond prime time. As anyone who cares must already know, five nights of Leno could undercut local news on the network affiliates. It could erode the once-dominant Tonight Show. Leno has already blasted away at NBC’s claim that Conan O’Brien is the “new king of late night.” NBC’s spin have been that lower ratings don’t matter as long as the show draws a younger demographic; when Time magazine asked Leno about that logic, he laughed and said, “Whatever you want! Whatever works for you, babe. ‘Sure, honey, you look thin!’”

Only time will tell whether NBC looks thin—or a little too thin. Leno may sink or surge or just kind of lie there. The broadcast model may be doomed, or it may function for years to come yet. The only sure thing is that as NBC unveils the Leno show, many in Hollywood will be wondering for whom the chimes toll.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.