Posted by Dale Buss on October 29, 2009 09:12 AM
Wow, it’s hard to think of an idea – even in fickle show business – that has fizzled as quickly as NBC’s moving Jay Leno to weeknights at 10.
In September, Leno starting popping up in primetime five nights a week, after the long-planned handoff of his 11:35 pm Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien. America’s tepid reaction to the shift may have irreversibly damaged the once-mighty Leno brand. Not good for NBC, since for now, the network has tied its brand inextricably with Leno’s.
Adding to NBC’s many other woes, the new Leno show is a financial pothole for the network: A 30-second spot during Leno now garners only an estimated $50,000 to $65,000, down from about $75,000 to $150,000 for the 10 to 11 pm weekday slots one year ago.
As Ad Age's Simon Dumenco noted, “Longevity is not the same as brand loyalty.” He writes that the new Leno show “feels cheap,” even compared to the Tonight Show's chintzy production values, and warns that what satisfies TV-watchers as a tummy-warmer at 11:30, right before they turn in, can prove merely soporific at 10.
So where do NBC and Leno go from here? The situation might yet improve. For one thing, the bottom line is what matters, and though NBC is scraping much lower revenues for Leno's ad spots, it still costs next-to-nothing to produce the program – compared with the slick dramas still seen elsewhere in that time slot.
Also, it’s possible that Leno, even at 10, might begin faring better against the competition once other networks enter repeat cycles. Next summer may be an opportunity. And his show could have one or more "breakthrough moments."
But NBC is tight on choices. After decades of honing his shtick, Jay can't pull off too drastic a makeover. He can't morph into an interview hound like Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. Leno will always be a stand-up-and-gag guy.
That’s how NBC promoted Leno on the cusp of his time switch. And now, for better or worse, that’s the brand the network is stuck with.