Culture & Conversation

Behind Leno’s Prime-Time Flop

In retrospect, NBC’s decision to replace its entire 10 o’clock drama line-up by a daily Jay Leno Show was not only ill-advised, it was suicidal. For a simple but irresistible reason: on an occasional basis, viewers may prefer to spend easy time with talk show hosts and glamorous guests – but, in the long run, they would rather commit to lasting relationships with well-written and well-produced fiction.

NBC’s announcement last spring that Jay Leno would leave the Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien had been expected, but the second part of the deal – the 10 pm time lost, came as a shocker. It seemed obvious that, being in very bad shape, the Peacock Network had chosen a cheaper, if drastic, solution to fill its primetime schedule.

High-quality storytelling is, for sure, much more expensive than topical one-liners and promotional line-ups. Still, for reasons I hope to elaborate in future contributions to this site, executives should know that fiction remains much more appealing to the public than any other kind of programming. Even though American Idol has been the number one program on American TV this season, 12 of the top 20 shows are scripted dramas or comedies. And this has been going on for a long time.

Since the early days of American Television, the 10 p.m. slot has always been the host of high-quality, demanding, gritty dramas (Remember the 12-year run of NYPD Blue on ABC?), attracting high-income audiences targeted by very specific sponsors.

It the early 80’s, NBC’s groundbreaking Hill Street Blues started what television’s historian and critic Robert J. Thompson aptly called “Television’s Second Golden Age”. The Peacock went on to become the top US Network for two decades. Its reign ended in the early 2000’s when signature shows such as Friends and Frasier finally bowed and the once worldwide number one drama, ER, was replaced in the audience’s heart by CBS’s juggernaut CSI franchise and by less celebrated but brilliant dramas such as Cold Case and Without a Trace.

As any sensible observer of American Television could have predicted, a sizeable number of the demanding 10 p.m. audience didn’t watch Leno. Significantly, NBC’s aging but still high-rated moneymaking show Law & Order : Special Victims Unit lost a considerable share of its viewers after it was displaced from the Wednesday, 10. p.m. slot. Its audience flipped to other networks. And they had a lot to choose from.

For drama and comedy have never fared better, in number and in quality, than they nowadays do on both the networks and cable channels. Starting in the early 90’s, cable leader HBO was first to air bold, innovative dramas and single camera comedies which threatened the networks’ domination. The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On! and Oz were on the air long before The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm started to garner Emmys. In the past five years, other cable channels have started producing their own dramas and comedies. While HBO’s influence has somewhat declined, Showtime, FX, SciFi, TNT, AMC, the NBC-owned USA, Starz and others now air critically-acclaimed shows (including Damages, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Men of a Certain Age and the very recent and impressive Spartacus : Blood and Sand) which attract a growing number of watchers away from the networks’ regular scheduling.

“NBC’s 10 p.m. Jay Leno debacle has been good for CBS,” said Eye entertainment prexy Nina Tassler to the press, in early January 2010. It has, indeed! Except for the 2007-2008 season, led by Fox, CBS had been ruling as America’s top network for almost ten years now. At this time, it still rules, with a solid prime-time schedule composed of a dozen (mostly) procedural dramas and half as many very successful comedies. Significant is the fact that CBS airs only three reality shows in its prime time schedule. Only fifteen years ago, the rising Reality TV fad had been labelled and libelled as the future killer of scripted shows. As anyone can tell, scripted shows are still alive and well.

Even more significant is the fact that, in the past five years, the DVD industry has met a drastic change: movies are not the buyers’ favourite choice anymore. A growing number of TV’s comedies and dramas, including decades-old ones such as I Love Lucy or Marcus Wellby, M.D. are currently re-issued in boxed-set DVDs and Blue-Rays and meet with a growing success.

One might believe that NBC would have known that in the first place. Cancelling their Leno at 10 experiment indicates they’ve finally came to their senses. And Look who’s back! According to the very well informed The, in early January NBC extended its episode order for five of its scripted shows, including Law & Order : SVU (which will be back, after the Olympics, in its former 10 p. m. slot) and the 21-year-old but still kicking and more topical and provocative than ever Law & Order.

Welcome back, Drama!

Marc Zaffran is a researcher and doctor. He has edited and co-written a dozen books on TV drama. His essay “Mr. Monk Meets Dr. House” will be published in Monk and Philosophy.

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