For several months leading up to the September premiere of The Jay Leno Show, NBC ran a nightly promo for it at 10 PM.
A nearly four minute promo for The Jay Leno Show ran in movie theaters across the country before the show’s September premiere. Also featuring Saturday Night Live performer Fred Armisen, the video parodies The Blair Witch Project. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/
In a spot referencing Jay Leno’s love for classic cars, this ad during the 2010 Super Bowl highlighted his 10 PM prime time show. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/
After Taylor Swift began her acceptance speech for the Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA), Kanye West rushed the stage and took the microphone from her. He announced that Beyonce’s video for the song “Single Ladies” was “one of the best videos of all time!” to a stunned studio audience.
Kanye West was already scheduled to appear with Jay-Z and Rihanna to perform their single “Run This Town” on the first episode of The Jay Leno Show. He sat down with Leno the day after the VMA incident to apologize for his inappropriate action.
In its January 29, 2010, issue, Entertainment Weekly named The Jay Leno Show one of the biggest bombs in television history.
In sharp contrast, in 2009 the annual Harris Poll listed Jay Leno as the top television personality. Since he took over The Tonight Show in 1992, Leno had been consistently in the top ten but had never appeared in the top spot.
A promo for The Jay Leno Show suggests that viewers just want to “laugh it off” after a long day.
Bill Carter’s nonfiction book about the struggles between the late night hosts and NBC inspired an HBO original movie, The Late Shift, originally released in 1996.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, Leno delivered a steady stream of jokes in his monologue about the proceedings. This included popular segments like “The Dancing Itos,” where several male dancers are dressed like presiding Judge Lance Ito. This second version of the segment also features a dancer as Prosecutor Marcia Clark.
After the upstart Fox network outbid CBS for the broadcast rights to National Football Conference (NFC) games in 1993, several stations jumped affiliation from CBS to Fox in 1994.
Bret Michaels appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on May 24, 2010, a day after it has been revealed that he won The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC.
For his first episode as the host of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon featured a segment with Will Smith called “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing.” Placed on YouTube, that clip has garnered over 20 million views, more than the actual number of viewers who watched the first episode live. Available at:
Like many reality shows, NBC’s The Biggest Loser provides ample opportunities for sponsorship and product placement. For example, contestants can train at a 24-Hour Fitness center, which easily fits into the weight loss narrative of the program.
Using well-known television personality Regis Philbin as its host, ABC launched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as a limited summer series in 1999. Its popularity led to a November Sweeps period run and then a permanent place on ABC’s prime-time schedule.
One of the video game iterations of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
On December 9, 2008, Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, then the co-chairmen of U.S. broadcast network NBC, held a press conference to make a surprising announcement: the network would strip a show centering on popular late-night television host Jay Leno across the 10 PM hour beginning in September 2009.[open endnotes in new window]
As the fourth place network, NBC had struggled for several years to attract the industry’s key demographic of 18-49 year-old viewers, particularly with its prime time dramas. If NBC was ever to pull out of its ratings slump, executives certainly needed to try a new approach to the network’s overall programming and content. Although executives for the network had been hinting for years that they would like to shakeup the traditional broadcast schedule, no one in the industry was quite prepared for a talk show to occupy five hours, or one-third, of valuable prime time real estate during the week.
It may have seemed like NBC was waving the white flag of surrender with The Jay Leno Show. But the program was based on a very successful, long-standing format—the late-night talk show, a staple on U.S. television for the last sixty years—that could potentially address the harsh realities of the contemporary prime time landscape, particularly for a struggling broadcast network. Indeed, late-night talk shows are among the few types of programs that experienced an increase in viewership for the broadcast networks in the first half of the 2000s, despite the increasing challenges presented by cable, DVRs, and online viewing.
From the announcement until the show went on the air nine months later, NBC’s plan to significantly alter its prime time schedule with a stripped talk show became the center of much debate, controversy and scorn, with the network’s decision endlessly dissected in the New York Times, Time magazine, Variety, as well as many other media outlets. ("Stripped" is a media industry term meaning having the show run at the same time every day.) The Jay Leno Show finally premiered on September 14, 2009, and it did exceptionally well in the ratings.
The first episode attracted over 18 million viewers and received a 5.3 rating/13 share in the 18-49 demographic. Its success on that first night was due to three main factors.
First, the fall premieres of many prime time programs were a week away so it faced little in terms of direct competition.
Second, the advertising and marketing blitz prepared by NBC over those nine months left many viewers curious about the show. A long, comedic video shown in 16,000 movie theaters; a memorable thirty second commercial which aired during the 2009 Super Bowl; and a promo every single night at 10 PM EST on NBC for several months leading up to the new show’s debut—all of these marketing elements contributed to a hyper-presence for the comedian. In fact, by August 2009, NBC’s research indicated that 80% of the public was aware of Leno’s new 10 PM program.
Finally, among the guests slated for that first episode, The Jay Leno Show fortuitously featured Kanye West who had stolen the microphone the previous evening from country superstar Taylor Swift as she accepted the “Best Female Video Award” at MTV’s Video Music Awards in order to declare Beyonce the more deserving winner for that category. Many viewers tuned in to see how West would respond to the controversy surrounding his inappropriate actions.
But a strong premiere does not make a show a hit; it has to sustain a large audience over an extended period of time. The ratings success of the premiere night turned out to be short-lived, and The Jay Leno Show soon settled into the unspectacular routine of attracting somewhere between four and six million viewers each night, and achieving a rating between 1.5 and 2.0 within the 18-49 demographic. Local affiliates started to speak of a so-called “Jay Leno Effect” as ratings for the 11 PM news dropped precipitously in a number of large markets. As advertising during news programs makes up the largest percentage of local station revenue (at an average of 40 to 50 percent), ratings drops have a significant impact on potential profitability. The 11 PM newscasts are particularly vulnerable to lowered ratings, as they run an extra ad break before turning to the network-programmed talk shows at 11:35 PM.
With the affiliates’ growing discontent over The Jay Leno Show’s harmful lead-in to their local news, the situation became dire in December 2009. As a result, Jeff Gaspin, Chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, announced on January 10, 2010, that The Jay Leno Show had been cancelled and would be off the air before NBC’s coverage of the 2010 Olympic Games began in February. In his announcement, Gaspin stressed that the cancellation was a difficult decision and primarily reached because of the impact of the program on local affiliates and not on the network itself:
While its performance certainly was detrimental to local affiliates’ ratings, The Jay Leno Show can hardly be classified as a network failure. From NBC’s perspective, The Jay Leno Show actually achieved a number of feats for the troubled network. It pleased advertisers, efficiently filled a number of holes in the prime time schedule, and ultimately proved profitable. 90% of new shows fail to earn a second season and most are quickly forgotten. Unlike most series failures, however, NBC’s attempt to significantly alter the prime time landscape through The Jay Leno Show made it a much more important failure, and its removal from the schedule left a longer lasting mark on the network than typical series failures. As media scholar Jason Mittell argues,
Examining failed series provides an opportunity to define the boundaries of what constitutes successful television at a given time. As the program failed to last more than six months on the air, NBC’s very aberrant programming decision with The Jay Leno Show is an instructive case study of the challenges broadcast networks face in the contemporary television marketplace and the limits of taking significant programming risks in such an environment.
The Jay Leno Show may be regarded as yet another failure in television’s long history of cancelled programs, but in its failure, the show ultimately reiterated the importance of the 10 PM drama, as well as the primary business model for broadcast television of network affiliation. It also showed the risks of programming experimentation in a landscape marked by significant technological innovation. Thus, its failure confirmed that the traditional models remained an important aspect of the contemporary broadcast television landscape despite the increasing demands of the post-network marketplace.
Talk shows, reality shows,
In many of the promotions for The Jay Leno Show in 2008 and 2009, NBC touted that Leno was “America’s #1 TV personality,” a claim based on the annual Harris Poll rankings of television celebrities. Having come off his seventeen-year stint as the host of NBC’s long-running franchise The Tonight Show in May 2009 with the highest ratings in late-night television, Leno was indeed a popular and well-known figure. To reassure his fans, the promotions for his new show stressed that a number of his key segments—including his opening monologue, Headlines, Jaywalking, and Battle of the Jaywalk Allstars—would also be a part of his prime time series.
These promotions also emphasized the focus would be on comedy and laughter rather than murder, guns, and grim crime stories as typically seen in the 10 PM slot. This last hour of prime time has historically been filled with more adult-oriented dramas that feature (brief) nudity, graphic violence, and profanity because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deemed the hours between 10 PM and 6 AM to be the Safe Harbor—a time period where children were expected to be asleep and the FCC relaxed regulation over content shown on broadcast television.
The promotions for The Jay Leno Show claimed that at the end of the long day, the viewer just wants to “laugh it off.”Executives’ reasoning behind why Leno—and why comedy, rather than another drama—seem like fairly sound decisions in regard to prime time programming. After all, both the use of star power and counter-programming—the scheduling of a distinctive genre to go after a different audience than the other networks’ programming in the same time slot—have been key industrial strategies for decades. What is less obvious, however, is why network executives would take a risk on this type of format in the most important daypart, prime time. TV programming relies on reaching certain age groups and certain demographics in its scheduling according to dayparts, with prime time having the largest and most broad potential audience. While successful in other dayparts, the long-term stripping of programs in the prime time daypart has no successful precedent in contemporary U.S. television.
Yet, The Jay Leno Show can be seen as part of a much larger shift by the networks from expensive, scripted programming to a greater reliance on game shows, reality programs, and hybrids of those two genres, such as Survivor (CBS, 2000-present) or The Biggest Loser (NBC, 2004-present), over the last decade. What The Jay Leno Show offered NBC was a very successful, long-standing format as seen in The Tonight Show that could address the harsh realities of the contemporary television prime time landscape.
The late-night talk show format originated with television pioneer Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver, a top executive at NBC who developed The Tonight Show in 1954 with host Steve Allen. Through the program’s first three years on air, Allen featured a number of what would become late-night talk show staples: the opening monologue, segments involving the studio audience, comedic bits featuring the host, as well as the desk and couch setup of the stage.However, it was Allen’s successor Jack Paar, who hosted the show from 1957-1962, that centered the program around interviews with celebrities.
And it was Paar’s successor, Johnny Carson, who turned The Tonight Show into a venerable franchise. Through Carson’s thirty years of hosting the program, the average nightly audience had grown from 7.5 million viewers in 1962 (doubling Paar’s audience size) to 11 million viewers in 1972 to 17.3 million viewers by 1977 to over 20 million throughout much of the 1980s. While other late-night programs had emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s to challenge The Tonight Show, such as The Arsenio Hall Show on Fox from 1989-1994, none made much dent in Carson’s viewership.
With Carson’s retirement in 1992, however, the late-night landscape changed significantly. Leno’s takeover of The Tonight Show from Carson was fraught with controversy and ended up creating more viable competition in that daypart. Although Leno had served as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show, Carson favored David Letterman as his replacement for the franchise. Letterman, who also served as a guest host on several occasions for Carson, already had his own late-night show, Late Night with David Letterman, which followed The Tonight Show at 12:35 AM and was popular with the 18-49 audience. However, NBC executives preferred Leno, finding him easier to work with and his humor and interview style more appealing to the older demographic that typically watched The Tonight Show. Letterman stayed with NBC for a year after Leno became the new host in order to meet the terms of his contract, but he then jumped networks to CBS to host his own show opposite The Tonight Show. New York Times columnist Bill Carter wrote a nonfiction book about the late-night struggles between the two stars entitled The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. Published in 1994, the book was later adapted into a popular television movie produced by pay cable network HBO, demonstrating the amount of interest viewers had in the two personalities and the fighting that occurred between the two networks at the time.
Leno’s late-night show faltered for several years, continually losing to Letterman in the ratings. By the end of 1995, however, Leno began his ascendency in late-night viewership. Leno’s re-tooling of The Tonight Show format and his image helped him gain new viewers. The set was re-done to place Leno and his guests closer to the studio audience, which translated well on-screen to the audience at home.
The Tonight Show received a new bandleader with Kevin Eubanks, with whom Leno had a better rapport. Leno also spent nights and weekends on college campuses and in comedy clubs, earning him younger viewers than those who typically watched The Tonight Show. His monologue and comedic segments became more topical, seen in his frequent references to the O.J. Simpson trial occurring at the time with a sketch such as “The Dancing Itos” which featured a chorus line of men dressed as Judge Lance Ito.
At the same time, Letterman lost viewers as CBS experienced two major inter-related problems. First, the upstart Fox broadcast network had acquired the rights from CBS to broadcast National Football Conference (NFC) games beginning in 1994. Because the advertising revenue from the games is so lucrative, several local CBS stations jumped networks to become affiliated with Fox, which forced CBS to find weaker, smaller stations in those markets to air its programming. The NFC games also acted as a promotional mechanism for other network programming, so CBS lost a substantial marketing vehicle when the rights shifted to Fox. The 1994-95 season saw CBS’s prime time programs collapse in their ratings, leaving Letterman without strong lead-ins to his late-night program. Strong lead-ins provided during prime time not only help the local news at 11 PM, but also the entire late-night programming lineup that follows. Although Letterman would briefly challenge Leno at times (such as when he returned from heart surgery in 2000), The Tonight Show’s lead became too big to overcome. The Tonight Show remained the clear leader in late-night viewership throughout the rest of the decade and into the 2000s. However, it never regained the numbers seen regularly during Carson’s tenure.
While not as heavily viewed as prime time programs, late-night talk shows are an important part of a network’s schedule for a number of reasons.
Due to their inherent segmentation, talk shows easily lend themselves to repurposing—the reuse of a program or part of a program across other corporate properties—while dramas and sitcoms do not. For example, NBC.com regularly offered Leno’s monologue each morning after The Tonight Show aired as a separate clip from the episode itself. Currently, Hulu (of which, NBC Universal is a founding partner) and YouTube regularly feature segments from late-night talk shows (both legally and illegally) that can be downloaded and/or streamed. A segment called “Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing” from the first episode of The Tonight Show featuring new host Jimmy Fallon has garnered over twenty million views on YouTube as of this writing, more than the estimated eleven million who watched the show live on February 17, 2014. NBC monetizes these clips via advertising revenue through each venue that airs the content. The viewer requires no context to watch these segments, and can find the clips days, months, or even years after they air. The segments also provide additional buzz for the programs, marketing the show to potential new viewers. Thus, late-night talk shows are valuable to the networks because of their lower costs, regular viewership, promotional opportunities, and their ability to adapt to the short-form viewing environment tied to new technologies.
As the broadcast networks have faced the continued erosion of viewership in the last two decades, each of these strengths of the late-night talk show have been the focus of new strategies in regard to the prime time schedule and its associated content. In the contemporary environment, the television industry is facing large-scale changes in terms of the technologies available for consumers to view content, the production and financing structure that supports television programming, the distribution methods and outlets utilized for TV series, and the mechanisms used to measure television viewership. Networks and production companies provide online content from apps to webisodes to behind-the-scenes footage to keep viewers engaged with their programming at all times, on all devices. Product placement and integration has increased dramatically in sitcoms and dramas both to supplement production budgets and to aid advertisers’ access to audiences. In 2007, the industry adopted the C3 ratings standard that measures the number of live viewers plus viewers within three days who watched the commercials in order to account for timeshifted viewing via the DVR. Separate ratings mechanisms now track viewing via Hulu and other websites, video-on-demand services, and iTunes. Media scholar Amanda Lotz claims that these changes contribute to an environment where “post-network television is primarily non-linear rather than linear,” with fewer and fewer viewers watching television programs in their original, live airing. Thus, traditional programming practices—such as relying on strong lead-ins to help the ratings of later programs—are rendered less effective in such an environment.
One of the few types of prime time programming that has flourished on the broadcast networks in the post-network environment despite these challenges is reality television. As DVR penetration continues to grow, reality shows are among the least timeshifted programs and are less likely to be watched through video-on-demand or online sites such as Hulu. Over the past few years, reality shows such as CBS’s Survivor, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (2005-present), and Fox’s American Idol (2002-present) have been among the highest rated programs in prime time television. These programs are typically cheaper to produce as they use much less above-the-line talent and smaller union crews by instead focusing on regular individuals and contestants. They feature lower production values, such as handheld cameras and natural lighting. They are also quicker to develop than fictional programming, and can thus fill gaps easier in a network’s schedule if the need arises. Episode lengths can be shortened or lengthened, depending on the network’s need. Multiple episodes can air in the same week when necessary. They are often easy to format, either through providing a solid base for spin-offs and copycat ideas or as a new source of revenue if picked up in other international markets. Product placement and integration can blend seamlessly into the program’s narrative. Reality television and game shows particularly fit into the summer programming schedule of the networks, which still need original content when there are fewer viewers available and they face strong competitors in original cable series.
As an early example of this trend, ABC’s reliance on the British formatted game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (hereafter, WWTBAM)is a case in point. Debuting in August 1999 with television personality Regis Philbin as host, the show was stripped for two weeks in ABC’s prime time schedule. WWTBAM won its time slot in total viewers each of the thirteen nights it was on the air that month. As a result of its success, ABC executives decided to strip the show again, this time during the crucial November sweeps period when networks and stations try to maximize the number of viewers in order to secure higher advertising rates. Regarding the unusual move, Stu Bloomberg, the co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group at the time, claimed:
WWTBAM was showcased on eighteen nights during November, and it continued to be a ratings winner. The show propelled ABC to its first sweeps win in the 18-49 demographic since November 1994. By the end of the month, it was announced that WWTBAM would become a regular series on the network’s schedule starting in January.
Receiving nearly $300,000 per 30-second spot, WWTBAM alone accounted for 25% of ABC’s advertising revenues during the 1999-2000 television season. AT&T sponsored the Phone-a-Friend segment used by some contestants, adding to the program’s overall ad revenue. With the network boasting some $200 million in profits, WWTBAM not only changed ABC’s fortunes, but also contributed significantly to the profitability of its parent company, Disney, as it added $6 billion in value that year. As the show became more popular, spin-off products began to emerge, including board and video games. The other networks developed their own game shows in order to compete with the success of WWTBAM; for example, Fox added Greed to its schedule in 1999 and NBC revived the classic game show, Twenty One, in 2000, neither of which lasted more than a season. In a February 2000 article for Newsweek, writer Johnnie L. Roberts claimed that this was all part of the phenomenon dubbed the “‘Millionaire’ effect,” a transformation of the entire prime time landscape into game shows and other cheaper fare. After less than a year on the air, it seemed that WWTBAM had in fact altered scheduling and merchandising practices for TV programs, while at the same time it had lifted the fortunes of a struggling network.
By the fall of 2000, WWTBAM dominated ABC’s schedule, airing four nights of the week. At the same time, the ratings for WWTBAM finally began to cool. In October, the show was down 25% with the 18-49 demographic. As the traditional television season drew to a close with the May 2001 sweeps, ABC had dropped from first to fourth place in terms of the 18-49 demographic, with an overall 30% decrease in these viewers. By the fall of 2001, WWTBAM had been trimmed back to only two nights a week, where it continued to struggle. In March of 2002, in response to still more viewership declines, ABC executives claimed that the network needed to refocus. For example, Kevin Brockman, ABC’s Senior Vice President of Entertainment Communications, told the press that the network had “lost our way,” and that ABC would soon return to a schedule of “what traditionally made ABC a network.” By April 2002, WWTBAM was down to airing one night per week before it was finally cancelled as a regular prime time series at the end of the season, though it has been brought back several times since as part of special event programming for the network and it remains on the air during daytime hours as a syndicated series. ABC finished the 2001-2002 television season again in fourth place in the 18-49 demographic, down 18% from the previous year.
ABC’s stripping of WWTBAM in prime time was seen as a key culprit in the network’s precipitous decline. What started off as a fairly sound strategy—increasing the number of episodes per week of its most important and profitable program—quickly backfired on the network. In a fake obituary for the program published in the New York Times, writer Bill Carter claimed,
Indeed, Carter cites that at the same time ABC executives expanded WWTBAM to four nights a week, they had slashed the development budget for new series, leaving the network with few options to replace the game show once it began to falter. In Carter’s piece, Michael Davies, an executive producer for WWTBAM, claimed that because it was such a risk for the network,
Programming one series that took up the majority of a network’s prime time schedule seemed unthinkable as a result of the waning ratings experienced by WWTBAM and the effect it had on ABC’s overall health. It would take nearly a decade and another faltering network to prove Davies wrong.