NBC pulls plug on Jay Leno show's prime time experiment

NBC announced Sunday that it is planning to move Jay Leno's talk show to 11:30 p.m. Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon would shift back a half hour – if they accept the deal.

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    Jay Leno, shown in this Aug. 5, 2009 file photo, speaks during the panel for 'The Jay Leno Show' at the NBC Universal Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif.
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NBC has confirmed that as of Feb. 12 – coinciding with the debut of Vancouver Olympics coverage – talk show host Jay Leno has been given a pink slip for his Monday-to-Friday, 10 p.m. time slot.

Sunday morning, at a press conference in Pasadena, Calif., NBC/Universal’s chairman of television entertainment, Jeff Gaspin told reporters that all three of the peacock network’s late-night hosts are taking the weekend to consider the offer now on the table, namely that Mr. Leno retake his 11:35 berth, while Conan O’Brien shifts to 12:05 A.M. – retaining his title as host of “The Tonight Show.”

In this new scenario, Jimmy Fallon will move to 1:05 A.M.

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As for what the network would drop into the newly-vacated 10 p.m. slot for all five nights of the week, Mr. Gaspin offered little more than speculation that the network might regain two hours of dramas and a mix of news and reality shows.

For now, he adds, NBC is going “back to basics.”

Losses of $200 million

Both he and President of Prime time Entertainment Angela Bromstad declined to analyze what has been called one of the costliest mistakes in broadcast network history other than to say the network “must be ready for change,” according to Ms. Bromstad. Losses to NBC have been pegged at topping $200 million.

But media watchers say there are important lessons in the prime time experiment, both in what it says about the future of the broadcast television model and the evolution of viewer behavior.

“It’s not necessarily true that a variety show couldn’t work at that hour,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The problem in this case was that the Leno show was not very good.”

The five-nights-per-week, inexpensive alternative is one we will see again, he says. “This particular one just didn’t work,” he says.

Beyond that, he points out that while NBC hyped the idea as the beginning of a widespread repudiation of the 60-year-old broadcast television model, “if you are a network with a bunch of hits on your hands, the old system can work perfectly well.”

End of the late-night talk show?

Compelling storytelling is the bedrock of any form of media, says Paul Levinson of Fordham University.

“The delivery system doesn’t matter,” says the author of “New New Media.” What carries the day is a well-told story: “That’s what people will show up to watch, whether it’s a complicated, continuing storyline like on ABC’s 'Lost,' or something like CBS’s 'NCIS' procedurals, where there are new stories and characters every week.”

The challenge is the same, he adds. “For every Homer and that kind of riveting story in ancient Greece,” he says, “there were probably hundreds we don’t know about but that nobody found interesting.”

While fundamentals might not change, however, Mr. Levinson is quick to point out that formats can and do. “What we’re witnessing is the death of the late-night talk show format as we’ve known it since the '50s,” he says.

Audiences, especially younger ones, expect much edgier material and have far more options from the internet to DVDs and cable in which to find it. While many have suggested that Leno might have succeeded at 10 p.m. if the show had been sharper or more political, “that probably would not have been possible,” Levinson adds.

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