Time will tell if the decision of NBC to keep Jay Leno in the fold by giving him a weeknight show at 10 PM -- five nights a week -- is the desperate action of a fourth place network or, as seems more likely, the first major development in what will gradually come to be seen as the end of primetime television as we have known it for six decades.
It was clear that NBC had to do something radical to prevent Leno from leaving the network when the Tonight Show baton is passed to Conan O'Brien next spring. There could not be a bigger change in the way television does business than having him move his current show into primetime. We've seen something like this in the past: ABC drastically expanded the primetime reach of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire when the series became a surprise hit, and NBC once wallpapered its schedule with editions of Dateline.
But those strategies developed gradually as a way to plug schedule holes, and cutting back on the timeslots devoted to those shows was simple. But that's not going to be possible here: Leno can't just be taken off Thursday nights if NBC has a particular show it wants to try out. In effect, NBC is permanently ceding the 10 PM hour to its competition.
There are some upsides to NBC's decision, the biggest one involving (what else) money. Leno's show is significantly cheaper to produce than any scripted series would be, even considering the host's gargantuan salary. The ratings for The Tonight Show, even at 11:30, aren't really much different than the various disasters NBC has had at 10 PM lately, save for the soon-to-end ER and the network's highest-rated scripted show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Leno is famously loathe to take vacations, meaning that for big chunks of the year, particularly in the summer months, NBC will have non-repeat programming in the timeslot as opposed to CBS and ABC.
Finally, essentially cutting its primetime hole by five hours will give NBC a chance to concentrate on fewer, and hopefully better, scripted shows. One would think we've also seen the end of bad ideas such as two-hour episodes of The Biggest Loser. The network experimented this season with ordering new series without producing a pilot, a cost-cutting move that seems to have been penny wise and pound foolish, judging from the failure of everything new it has tried.
A good place to experiment with new series might be Sunday nights, a time period filled in the fall by NBC's only true hit show, NFL football. The cable networks have shown that you can produce only ten to thirteen new episodes of a show per season, and still keep the audience hooked. Sundays in the winter and spring would be the perfect opportunity for NBC to try for its own Mad Men. Of course, no 10 PM hour likely means the end of the road for Friday Night Lights and Life, two of the best reasons to watch NBC in recent years.
But matched against the positives, and the short-term benefit of keeping Leno from defecting, are some genuine negatives. Some will say that NBC is simply blazing the trail that the other networks will have no choice but to soon follow, economics being what they are. But in the short run, there's no question that the peacock will take a prestige hit, and be seen as something distinctly less than either ABC or CBS. It wasn't long ago that ER was the highest-rated show in primetime at 10 PM. Even if Leno can expand slightly on his current audience, his show should run third in the ratings on most nights, meaning NBC will have little chance of ever not finishing third or fourth in the overall Nielsen hunt.
And even the lamest series these days have ancillary ways of making money -- yes, believe it or not, they are going to produce a DVD of the one and only season of My Own Worst Enemy, and thousands of people will buy it. You can't sell Leno DVDs, and can't sell Jay in syndication.
There are also real questions about whether the late night ratings for NBC will hold up. Leno has been dominant on The Tonight Show, but his competition has been David Letterman, Nightline, and sleep. He's playing in a different league in primetime. And despite the conciliatory reaction of O'Brien, his "promotion" still makes him the #2 person in NBC's talk lineup -- and now instead of being in New York, he'll be competing for Los Angeles-based guests against Leno, a battle he isn't going to win very often. NBC is now in real danger of losing 11:30, and this is even leaving aside the issue of what's going to happen to Late Night in the hands of Jimmy Fallon, who has become a punch line months in advance of his debut.
What happens if this doesn't work? There's probably no going back. If Leno proves not to be viable in primetime, it will likely mean that NBC will get out of the 10 PM business entirely. More and more, it seems the only real difference between the cable channels and what we once knew as the Big Three is age.