Jay Leno and NBC's Primetime Gamble

Jay Leno
Jay Leno

Today NBC launches Jay Leno's new hour-long primetime show at 10 pm as part of a plan for the network to bring down costs and take a different approach to its primetime lineup.

Now, instead of competiting with the dramas on ABC and CBS, as well as the increasingly-successful programming on cable channels like USA, NBC is providing a comedic alternative, hosted by the most popular name in Late Night television. Though Leno's show may cost just a fraction the cost of a traditional primetime drama, NBC isn't saving any on its promotion of the show: NBC's been promoting tonight's debut since the Super Bowl in Feruary and the marketing budget is estimated at more than $10 million.

NBC is breaking from format with Leno's new show across the board. In addition to bringing a late night brand into primetime, the network is trying to lure advertisers with the promise that they'll get their money's worth, presenting them with the option of integrating brands into skits, do sponsorships of certain segments in addition to regular TV commercials. NBC is also breaking from precedent, investing in a massive radio push, which it hasn't done in years.

Watch on CNBC.com - Jay Leno, the Car Collector

So what will Leno's impact be? NBC doesn't need to come in first place in that slot, it just needs high enough ratings relative to the show's cost to justify taking a risk on the new model. Meanwhile rival CBS is hoping to take advantage of the thinned out competition to really rule the time slot. Across Hollywood TV writers and directors are hoping the Leno experiment will fail: they're afraid this low cost model will replace their bread-and-butter of scripted TV shows.

One factor raising the stakes for Leno's performance: the comedian is now the lead-in for local news in many markets. If Leno's runbers are lower than the 10 pm slot last year - and NBC was already the fourth-ranked network - then that will mean lower ratings going into local newsast. And a weaker newscast means lower ratings going into Conan O'Brien's new "Tonight Show," which has failed to take off since O'Brien replaced Leno. Affiliates are already suffering from a decline in local advertising across the board, they don't need any additional pressure.

(*Note NBC and CNBC are both owned by parent company General Electric)

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