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Debate Over Effects of Leno’s Show

Bill Carter|The New York Times
Monday, 12 Oct 2009 | 12:01 PM ET

Two weeks into a new season, the talk of television is the Leno effect — and whether it is hazardous to NBC’s health.

Jay Leno
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Jay Leno

On "The Tonight Show," the host, Conan O’Brien, going for laughs with his guest, Hank Azaria.

It is not just a question of how the new “Jay Leno Show” itself is faring in the ratings, but also what the show’s occupation of the 10 p.m. hour on NBC means to the network as a whole.

As Shari Anne Brill, the senior vice president and director of program analysis for the advertising agency Carat, put it, “It’s really looking like dominoes.”

The dominoes in question are the other parts of NBC’s schedule affected by the network’s decision to relocate its late-night star, Mr. Leno, to prime time. Even though, as NBC executives point out, it is early in this experiment, signs of potential collateral damage have already emerged.

Shows seem to have suffered because they have been displaced to new time periods, like “Law & Order SVU,” which was the leading drama when it played at 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, but now is finishing last after moving to 9 on Wednesdays.

Late newscasts on local stations affiliated with NBC are reporting significant ratings declines, at least partly because of a ratings drop-off in the 10:30 half-hour that precedes them.

And the late-night programs, led by “The Tonight Show,” that have been a perennial source of strength for NBC are no longer the automatic winners against their CBS competition.

Conan O’Brien, the new “Tonight” host, has been swamped recently by the tidal wave of publicity surrounding his CBS rival, David Letterman; but he also has been inheriting much smaller audiences than ever before in “Tonight’s” history.

That means NBC’s second act in late night, Jimmy Fallon, is also getting a much weaker lead-in than Mr. O’Brien did in the same hour a year ago, and as a result is falling behind his CBS competitor, Craig Ferguson, in audience totals.

NBC rightly points out that both its late-night stars remain more popular with younger viewers who are more valuable in selling to advertisers, but in the past NBC’s late-night hours were dominant across the board, not just with narrower audience segments.

And all of this is playing out against a backdrop of reports that General Electric is in talks with Comcast to sell NBC Universal.

Looked at in isolation, Mr. Leno has been doing everything NBC expected of him.

His ratings, after a big first week, have leveled off to about five million viewers a night (though some nights have been much lower) with a 1.5 to 2 rating in the category NBC identifies as all-important, viewers ages 18 to 49, the group many advertisers want to reach.

Though most 10 p.m. shows with those kinds of numbers get canceled, NBC has said from the beginning that it could accept much lower ratings because of the enormous cost savings of Mr. Leno’s show versus expensive hourlong scripted dramas. The network guaranteed advertisers that it would average only a 1.5 rating.

The network’s performance over all has not shown signs of a comeback. While somewhat propped up so far by professional football on Sunday night, NBC has not added any standout new shows. The new drama “Trauma” has already faltered, and a promising new comedy, “Community,” struggled last week when it was moved to a new 8 p.m. time period.

NBC has only two real points of strength now, two hours worth of the reality show “The Biggest Loser” on Tuesday and the comedy “The Office” on Thursday.

NBC has also emphasized that Mr. Leno needs to be judged over the full year because he will be offering many more original weeks of shows than his competitors.

But for some, the judgment is already clear-cut. Producers of shows that have in the past, and could in the future, fill the 10 p.m. hour on several networks are using words like “complete calamity” and “utter disaster” to describe the current state of NBC — though they are using the words while requesting anonymity because of the potential to be in business with NBC in the future.

One producer of several hits lamented the overall absence of a 10 p.m. opportunity for new dramas, saying NBC was formerly the place where the most innovative dramas on television — from “Hill Street Blues” to “E.R.” — found a home.

One recent example was the new police show “Southland,” which was NBC’s best-reviewed drama in years. In the past the network might have waited for it to build an audience based on its quality; but last week NBC announced it was canceling the show.

“Southland” was clearly intended as a 10 p.m. entry. John Wells, the longtime executive producer of “E.R.” who held the same position on “Southland,” issued a statement saying, “I’m disappointed that NBC no longer has time periods available to support that kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years a hallmark of their success.”

Measuring the competitors

If producers have reason to be dismayed, owners of NBC’s affiliated stations may be expected to be in open revolt. Among the top 15 cities in the country, ratings for the late news — a prime source of revenue for local television — are down 10 to 30 percent

But so far the owners seem to be holding their tongues — along with their breath. “You don’t make decisions based on a week or two,” said Michael Fiorile, the vice chairman of the Dispatch Broadcasting Group, which owns the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis. “Six months from now we’ll take a look at the trends.”

Media buyers like Ms. Brill are saying the early results are really no surprise. “It’s exactly what I predicted,” Ms. Brill said, adding of the decision to move Mr. Leno to 10, “it was never a ratings decision. It was a money decision.”

It still seems to be. Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment, said he was certain of one aspect of the Leno move. “We’ll make money at 10 o’clock this year, I guarantee.”

The rationale for the move of Mr. Leno was simple: the network could not endure his likely move to ABC, where he would have created a new late-night program and undermined the strength of “The “Tonight Show.”

But NBC is justifying the move by citing both the savings Mr. Leno’s show represents over expensive 10 p.m. dramas and the apparent disintegration of the 10 p.m. hour across the board. Mr. Gaspin repeated NBC’s conclusion that hits cannot be established at 10 anymore, largely because the hour is dominated by viewers playing back recorded shows on digital video recorders.

“Look at how ABC is doing at 10 against Jay,” Mr. Gaspin said.

Indeed, ABC’s performance is certainly providing some cover for NBC’s move at 10. Mr. Leno is already faring as well or better than two new ABC dramas, “The Forgotten” and “Eastwick,” and he is not far behind a third, “Castle.” All those shows cost three times as much or more per episode as Mr. Leno’s show.

Mr. Gaspin argued that NBC is not abandoning quality drama and cited recent deals for future shows, including outbidding the other networks for a spy drama from J. J. Abrams (“Lost”) and an American version of the British police classic “Prime Suspect.”

“Maybe we made some wrong choices with shows this season, but we are still investing in programming,” Mr. Gaspin said.

NBC is not engaging in any speculation about trends because it is arguing it is simply too early to read them. “We have to play for the long haul,” Mr. Gaspin said. It also might help not to keep “making proclamations that we’re doing this for cost reasons,” he said.

“Jay is doing fine,” Mr. Gaspin said. “Conan is doing what we expected him to do.” He added, “We’re going to look at our average over the full year.”

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