Jay Leno Fiasco Unfolds, and NBC Asks, Now What?

NBC has got quite a mountain to climb after the disastrous Jay Leno Show experiment. But returning Leno to his familiar 11:30 p.m. E.S.T. spot was the easy part. Getting viewers and advertisers to return to the lantern-jawed comedian will be far tougher; getting consumers to give a second chance to a product they've stopped using is one of the biggest challenges in marketing.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% The 4.6% of the Jay Leno Show prime-time audience that has fled since the General Electric (GE)–owned network began airing that program instead of more expensive scripted fare may never return. Many viewers have embraced CBS's (CBS) David Letterman, faults and all. Late Show ratings have soared since Leno departed The Tonight Show last year.

Viewers also have flocked to Nightline, which, according to the Walt Disney Co. (DIS).–owned ABC, has attracted more total viewers than The Tonight Show, hosted by Leno's successor, Conan O'Brien, for 28 weeks.

Some Leno fans may have discovered the virtues of getting a good night's sleep. The average age for late-night TV viewers is over 50.

"Whether Leno gets the Tonight Show back, or just returns to late night with a new 30-minute show to precede O'Brien," critic David Bianculli of NPR's Fresh Air writes on his TV Worth Watching Blog, "the other question that needs to be asked is this: Has the overwhelming failure of The Jay Leno Show, creatively and in the ratings, tarnished the comic's audience draw?"

It's a great question, with no easy answer. Nothing like this has ever happened. NBC had to take action: Affiliates were furious that the Leno show was hurting the viewership of their profitable local evening news shows. Some reportedly threatened to drop the program, but today, all seems forgiven. Michael Fiorile, head of the Affiliates Board, offered a conciliatory statement praising NBC for "for keeping the lines of communication so open, and for being so responsive to the needs of the affiliates."

Under terms of NBC's grand plan, The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien would start a half-hour later, at 12:05 a.m., and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon would start at the insomniac timeslot of 1:05 a.m. Neither O'Brien -- who reportedly is being wooed by News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox -- or Fallon has agreed to the moves. The later they hit the air, the fewer viewers are awake to watch -- and the fewer advertisers find their shows an attractive place to spend their money. And because NBC has broken its word once, no wonder advertisers are feeling twice shy.

NBC, no. 4 in the ratings, really does not have a clue what it's going to put on at 10 p.m. once the Jay Leno program ends next month. "There will probably be two scripted hours, another reality show, Dateline, or some reruns," Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, told reporters yesterday. "I've been thinking about that as long as I've been thinking I may have to make a change at 10 p.m."

NBC is desperate for viewers before its coming takeover by Comcast Corp. (CMCSA), so there's no telling what will wind up on the air at 10 p.m.

Does this mean that viewers will be treated to such quality fare such as I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here!, Celebrity Apprentice, or America's Got Talent? No, dear readers: I fear the programs NBC brass will come up with could make those shows seem like Emmy winners. The Kate + 8 Variety Hour? The Adventures of the Geico Gecko? Paris Hilton's That's Hot? The possibilities are endless, and endlessly frightening.

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