11.03.09

Don't Count Leno Out

With his ratings tanking, critics and competitors smell blood. But the hardest-working comic in show business has always had the last laugh.

With his ratings tanking, critics and competitors smell blood. But the hardest-working comic—who knows few bounds to defeat the competition, including spying—has always had the last laugh.

The trade press and the television critics have never had much use for Jay Leno, in contrast to their periodic bursts of adulation for his former late-night rival at CBS, David Letterman, and his Tonight Show replacement, Conan O’Brien. Life isn’t fair. Leno long ago made his peace with that reality.

But now that NBC’s prime-time Jay Leno Show has been on air for seven weeks at 10 p.m. and found wanting (if not by cheerleading NBC executives, then by almost everyone else), the elite media schadenfreude can’t be pleasant.

It’s difficult to make lemonade out of Leno’s sour ratings, an anemic average of 1.6 last week in the all-important 18-to-49 demographic—that is, 1.6 percent of the nation’s 18-to-49-year-olds and a full ratings point below the performance of last year’s scripted drama shows that aired in the same time slot. It’s barely enough for NBC to turn a profit. “We need a 1.5 to make money, so we’re ahead of that,” a network spokesperson argues brightly. Yet Leno has been losing to re-runs of CSI.

“So far he’s holding his own—and this is a very long-term commitment,” says an analyst. “I prefer to look at the glass as half-full.””

There was an element of near-sadistic glee in Broadcasting & Cable’s just-released Q&A with the embattled talk show host, in which interviewer Ben Grossman assaulted Leno with at least four variations on the question: Don’t you just hate yourself for participating in this utter fiasco?

When Leno remained calm and patiently, repeatedly, rebutted the premise—“I think it's too soon to say whether I regret anything or not,” he said, quite reasonably, at one point—his tormenter scoffed: “You know I don't believe a word you are saying, right?”

At this point in a courtroom cross-examination, the judge would admonish the prosecutor to stop badgering the witness.

But Leno, at 59, is made of sterner stuff.

“I always had this image of Jay,” his wife Mavis once told me, “as the guy in the rearview mirror. I actually sit here laughing at this—first he’s a speck, then he’s a little bigger, and then this guy in the mirror is alongside and in the passing lane. Then the other guy is in the rearview mirror.”

Leno himself reflected: “I’m one of those people who always has to touch bottom before I start going up, just to get a sense of perspective.”

Now that November sweeps are under way, Leno is getting more perspective than even he bargained for. The press is squawking and some of NBC’s affiliates are quaking—their jangled nerves only temporarily soothed by charm-offensive phone calls from Jay himself, coaxing and wheedling station general managers, worried about the lead-in to their local news, urging them to stick with him and things will get better—just like they did in the old days when Jay took The Tonight Show from also-ran to No. 1.

What’s more, it’s unclear how Leno’s show might fare after NBC Universal’s expected acquisition by Comcast in the negotiations with General Electric. Beyond operating profits, the show has little long-term value to the media giant; unlike a scripted drama, a talk show has negligible shelf life and zero foreign appeal.

Back in the last century, shortly after Leno began besting Letterman regularly in the ratings, I spent a few days following him around for a story on their rivalry for Vanity Fair. Unlike the press-averse Letterman—who grudgingly granted me 20 minutes of face time followed by an awkward phone interview—Leno let me sit in on rehearsals, attend the filming of a “Jay Walking” segment in the San Fernando Valley, invited me to his Beverly Hills home at 1 a.m. to watch him and his head writer cull through jokes for the next day’s monologue, and even solicited my (useless) opinion as to what was funny and what was not.

After I left Burbank, he called every so often to check in and schmooze. Finally, when I sheepishly explained that it would be improper to leak the story to him prior to publication, Leno tried to squeeze the fact-checker for information.

All in a day's workaholism for Leno, whose aggressiveness in reaching for the brass ring knows few if any bounds. Back when he and Letterman were competing for The Tonight Show, Leno famously hid in a closet to eavesdrop  on a conference call among top NBC executives—a bit of ethically dubious tradecraft that the pre-9/11 FBI might have hesitated to employ. In 1996, when Letterman was caught on an open microphone dissing his nominal employee, then Late Late Show host Tom Snyder, Leno phoned Snyder to commiserate and urged the embarrassed talk show host to fight his boss in the press. Snyder declined. Leno is also notorious for calling Hollywood publicists directly to book their famous clients for his show—a high-pressure offer that is hard to refuse.

I came away with the sense of a relentless competitor—a gung-ho scrapper who needed to win the story just as much he needed to win the night. “I like the game,” Leno acknowledged back then. “The idea of the game is they should be able to beat you up as hard as they can, and if you’re still standing, the game is a lot of fun. It is great.”

These days Leno is not having a lot of fun, but he is still in the game. NBC is charging his advertisers an estimated $48,000 per 30-second spot—about a 50 percent discount from what much higher-rated shows such as Law & Order SVU and E.R. were getting last year in the 10 p.m. time slot. Leno—who unlike Letterman has no history of controversy—provides a safe and comfortable environment for advertisers while his show, costing an estimated $500,000 per episode, comes in at a fraction of a typical scripted hour, which can run in the $3 million range. NBC has claimed that by replacing the scripted shows with Leno, among other measures, the network has cut $250 million from its annual expenses.

“So far he’s holding his own—and this is a very long-term commitment,” says analyst Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, whose clients include NBC. “I prefer to look at the glass as half-full.”

Ad buyer Chris Geraci, managing director of national broadcasting for the New York-based media company OMD, agrees that obituaries for the Jay Leno Show are way premature. “It’s performing pretty much right where we expected it would, and it’s not an incredibly bad thing for NBC,” he says. “The downside is more in the press than in the numbers.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.