The Cosby Show debuted on NBC in September 1984 as the lead-off program to the prime time lineup on Thursday evenings. During its eight seasons in that spot, it was among the top ten highest rated programs every year but its last, and ranked as the highest rated show for five of its seasons. It was a central program in NBC’s dominance throughout the 1980s.
ER debuted in the 10 PM Thursday slot in September 1994. For its first five seasons, it ranked as either the top rated or second rated show on network television. It contributed to NBC’s top-rated network status for much of the 1990s, and remained on the air in that slot for fifteen years.
As NBC began to struggle, it placed a number of cheaply produced reality shows in prime time, including Fear Factor (2001-2006). The image of contestants (here, artist Coolio) doused with crawling bugs contrasted with the upscale brand the network had previously cultivated.
NBC had high expectations for the show based on Slater’s movie star history, but it was cancelled in November 2008 after four episodes aired because of extremely low ratings. However, NBC did air five more episodes to honor advertising commitments.
Lipstick Jungle was another 10 PM program that struggled with low ratings on the NBC schedule. It took over the Thursday spot when ER went off the air, and was moved across the schedule several times. Despite receiving two seasons, only 20 episodes were ever produced (less than a typical broadcast season schedule).
Although the change was announced in 2004, Conan O’Brien did not take over as host of The Tonight Show until June 2009. Leno was not ready to leave his hosting duties, however, and NBC executives did not want to lose him to another network.
A production of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, Undercovers was an expensive program for NBC. Abrams directed the pilot episode of the series, but it never received high ratings. It was cancelled after its eighth episode.
Tim Allen discusses the rules of the Green Car Challenge with Jay Leno. Ford sponsored this segment of the program, which featured a celebrity driving a new Ford Focus on an obstacle course trying to achieve the fastest time possible.
“Jay Uses Bing to Search the Internet” was another ad-supported recurring segment on The Jay Leno Show. Even the search terms themselves could provide additional product placement opportunities, as seen here with Pantene.
The September 14, 2009, cover of Time which claims that Leno “is the future of television.” The Jay Leno Show was discussed in a wide variety of publications over the nine months between the initial announcement and its September 2009 premiere date.
While CBS and ABC executives were pleased to have one less serious drama competitor in the 10 PM slot, both networks did not want their stars to visit The Jay Leno Show since their appearances could draw an audience away from their own network. Here, Julia Louis-Dreyfus circumvents the embargo by placing several “Watch CBS” signs on her body while promoting The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-2010).
CBS has with increased frequency gotten into disputes with cable and satellite providers over subscription fees to carry the network, as it did with Time Warner in 2013. These disputes center on increasing the compensation the network receives, and indicate a move away from relying on their affiliates for national coverage.
In April 2009, Ed Ansin, the chief executive officer for Sunbeam Broadcasting, announced that its Boston NBC affiliate would not air The Jay Leno Show during the 10 PM hour. Ansin believed it would be a poor lead-in to his 11 PM news, and determined that The Jay Leno Show would be “very adverse to our finances.”
NBC was the dominant network with the 18-49 demographic during the 1980s and 1990s and even into the new millennium. Its Must-See TV lineup on Thursday nights established a number of hit sitcoms—including The Cosby Show (1984-1992), Seinfeld (1990-1998), and Friends (1994-2004)—as well as a record-breaking drama, E.R. (1994-2009), which topped the Nielsen ratings for many years. As media scholar Amanda Lotz outlines in “Must-See TV: NBC’s Dominant Decades,” NBC experienced two waves of success in the last stages of the network era. The first occurred from 1985-1991, and the second from 1995-2003. In both waves, NBC’s success with more upscale, college-educated viewers in the 18-49 demographic proved to be unmatched by any other broadcast or cable network.
But, in both cases, popular series aged without new hits replacing them, and executives started to scramble.[open endnotes in new window] Particularly as the second wave ended, executives put cheap reality shows on NBC’s schedule such as the gross-out competition program Fear Factor (2001-2006) and ugly-duckling dating show Average Joe (2003-2005). Neither of these reality shows meshed with the brand which had been cultivated by NBC for the past two decades. By the end of the TV season in 2004, NBC had landed in fourth place with the 18-49 demographic and remained mired there for the next eight years.
Although the network struggled across its entire prime time schedule, NBC’s particular Achilles heel proved to be its 10 PM dramas. The 10 PM hour is an especially important part of the prime time schedule; it offers the last lead-in to the local news for the network’s affiliates. Without a valuable boost from the lead-in show, a local news broadcast can suffer as viewers switch to another network (and therefore, possibly watch a competitor’s local newscast) or simply just turn the television off. It is also the hour that cable networks often target with new, acclaimed, and/or controversial programming, further drawing away viewers from the broadcast networks and their affiliate stations. All of NBC’s 10 PM programs averaged below a 3 rating in the 18-49 demographic during the 2008-2009 season, except one: Law and Order: SVU (1999-present), which averaged just above that mark with a 3.3. The Christian Slater vehicle, My Own Worst Enemy (2008), was pulled off the air after only nine episodes with a lowly 2.0 ratings average in the Monday 10 PM slot. Nor was it even the lowest rated 10 PM program for NBC; Wednesday night’s Lipstick Jungle (2008-2009) averaged only a 1.5 rating, as did Friday night news staple Dateline (1992-present). As the 2008-2009 season ended, NBC was also losing its stalwart, E.R., which was finally going off the air after fifteen years in the Thursday 10 PM slot.
It was clear that NBC had a massive problem on its hands—how to develop at least five new dramas for its key 10 PM hour efficiently and effectively? At the same time, the network faced a pressing issue with late-night star Jay Leno. In September 2004, NBC executives announced that Leno would leave The Tonight Show in 2009 and Conan O’Brien would then take over the late-night franchise. During this renegotiation of both late-night hosts’ contracts, the agreed upon date was cited as a preemptive move to keep O’Brien, who had serious inquiries from other networks to mount a competing late-night talk show, with NBC. With Leno’s viewers growing older, out of the advertiser friendly 18-49 demographic, NBC also needed someone who could attract a younger audience. Although Leno had put a positive spin about his retirement in the press, behind closed doors it was rumored that he was not ready to leave his position. As his retirement date drew closer, he was more certain, especially since he continued to dominate the late-night ratings. He, too, received inquiries about jumping networks and mounting a new late-night talk show. NBC executives did not want to lose Leno, but would be in breach of contract with O’Brien if they reneged.
Thus, the stripping of The Jay Leno Show was viewed as a viable solution to two of NBC’s most pressing problems—its failure in the 10 PM hour and its potential loss of Leno.Yet, The Jay Leno Show had a number of other advantages for NBC. First, the cost of mounting five episodes of a talk show were much cheaper than developing, producing and marketing five dramatic series for that hour, particularly given the high failure rate of television series. As a result of Leno’s history with the network and The Tonight Show, marketing costs were less than it would have been for launching five separate new series. While the marketing expenditure for The Jay Leno Show was quite large at a rumored $10 million, that budget covered five nights of prime time programming.
In comparison, the pilot episode of NBC’s drama Undercovers (2010) alone cost the same amount to produce and that does not even include the costs incurred by NBC to promote the new program, nor its additional production costs per episode. If the average rate per episode of a drama in 2009 was $3 million, and the network needed at least five new dramatic series to fill out its prime time schedule in the 10 PM hour, NBC’s expenditure was going to be quite large just to fill that time slot five days a week. In addition, the majority of NBC’s prime time shows are produced through its corporate brethren, Universal Media Studios. For the fall 2009 season, all but one prime time program was produced in-house which means the costs, as well as the profits, remained within the larger media conglomerate. It was predicted that if The Jay Leno Show averaged just a 1.5 rating with the 18-49 demographic, it would reap NBC $300 million in profits, making it a potentially lucrative program.
A second advantage of The Jay Leno Show in comparison to the typical 10 PM dramatic fare was the opportunities it produced for advertisers. For years, major advertisers have complained about the traditional broadcast schedule of twenty-two episodes a year of a program, leaving reruns and summers much less watched than original airings. Because the ratings were expected to be relatively low for The Jay Leno Show, advertising rates also were much lower than NBC’s competitors in the same time slot. For example, on Thursday nights at 10 PM, ABC’s going rate for a 30-second spot on Private Practice (2007-2013) was $175,450 while CBS’s going rate for The Mentalist (2008-present) was $140,940. The Jay Leno Show’s average cost for a 30-second spot in the same slot was just $57,295. With forty-six weeks on the air (for a total of 230 episodes a year), The Jay Leno Show allowed advertisers to attach themselves to more original episodes. Since The Jay Leno Show would offer more original content per year, that lower price would be available when Jay Leno faced much less original competition and thus served as a potential bargain for advertisers if his ratings peaked above the network’s guarantee.
In addition to advantages to the advertisers during the show’s breaks, The Jay Leno Show actively sought promotional partners for either recurring segments or for one-time sponsored segments. The most prominent of these partnerships was with Ford. The company sponsored the Green Car Challenge which featured a celebrity racing an electric Ford Focus around a track to achieve the quickest time. With the new show, Leno also created a new comedic segment, “Jay Uses Bing to Search the Internet,” which features the Microsoft Bing search engine responding to random search terms with comedic responses. With its focus on Ford, Microsoft, and other sponsors, The Jay Leno Show within its first two weeks on air led the top shows with product placement, with over 184 occurrences—triple its nearest competitor. By December, The Jay Leno Show was prime time television’s clear leader in product placement with over 1,015 mentions tracked by Nielsen. While Nielsen does not track whether the placement was paid or not (for example, a joke might be made in the monologue about McDonalds that is not paid for by the company), the results certainly demonstrated a program amenable to the inclusion of products.
A third advantage of The Jay Leno Show was that NBC executives viewed the program as “DVR-proof,” a term Ben Silverman used to describe the program at the May 2009 Upfronts. Skipping through commercials with the use of a DVR becomes less effective if advertisements are a part of the content itself. But beyond integrating advertisements into the show as done with Microsoft and Ford, executives like Silverman believed that viewers of The Jay Leno Show would prefer to watch the program live rather than recorded. The impact of the DVR on the 10 PM hour has been quite extraordinary. Not only are the 10 PM dramas competing with each other, they are also now competing with everything else recorded that evening, on any available channel. Nielsen research has revealed that only 27% of 10 PM shows that are recorded on DVRs are watched the same night they air as opposed to 53% of 8 PM shows and 42% of 9 PM shows. At the announcement of The Jay Leno Show in December 2008, Silverman called the new program a “killer app,” reasoning that “you want to watch it that night, and you want to watch it the next night” like you would The Tonight Show because of Leno’s personality and his ripped from the day’s headlines take on current affairs in the monologue. It stood to reason that a viewer would prefer to watch the show live rather than record it and watch it later in the week when an event no longer seemed as timely.
Thus, The Jay Leno Show offered a number of benefits for the struggling network:
While NBC executives were quite optimistic about the effect the program would have on the network, many television professionals, industry journalists, and media analysts believed that The Jay Leno Show was a harbinger of what was to come: the replacement of even more expensive, quality television series with cheaper, reality-based programming. It was the same feeling that emerged when WWTBAM became a ratings juggernaut for ABC—a sense of dread for the future of broadcast television. In their cover story on the prime time program, editors at Time magazine dubbed Jay Leno “the Future of Television. Seriously!” For many critics, though, it hardly seemed like a future to celebrate.
“The Future of Television”: debates about the
The Jay Leno Show hit quite a nerve; the network’s decision and what it indicated about the contemporary television landscape were widely debated in the popular and trade presses. In discussions about the show, many believed The Jay Leno Show would succeed because it was so cheap to make, had instant name recognition, and would not need to achieve the highest ratings to be profitable for the network. Executives at other networks, mainly ABC and CBS, were ecstatic to have one less significant competitor in the 10 PM hour. Writers, producers and showrunners were certainly worried what the future of the 10 PM drama would look like. Before the first episode even aired, The Jay Leno Show was defined as the future of broadcast television, and the implications of that future reverberated across the industry in myriad ways.
Like NBC, both ABC and CBS had suffered similar ratings woes for their 10 PM dramas. Although both networks featured major hits in the 9 PM hour, neither network had had much success piggybacking another drama off of a top-rated show. For example, CBS executives tried two different series after its Thursday mainstay CSI (2000-present) during the 2008-2009 season: Eleventh Hour, an adaptation of a successful British series that lasted less than twenty episodes; and Harper’s Ferry, a horror/action hybrid that lasted only thirteen episodes. Since Fox provided no national broadcasting during the 10 PM hour and NBC would have The Jay Leno Show, executives at ABC and CBS saw the level of competition dwindle significantly in that timeslot. Indeed, executives for CBS teamed up with representatives from its major affiliates to launch “Project L.E.N.O.” as an initiative to aggressively promote the 10 PM hour. Although executives denied that L.E.N.O. stood for Leno (rather, it stood for Late Enhanced prime News Opportunity), all of the network’s co-op money was being using to specifically target the 10 PM hour in the fall. For both ABC and CBS, the 10 PM hour became a top priority.
With one less network to finance and develop dramas in that time slot, however, showrunners, producers, and writers were much more incensed about the stripping of The Jay Leno Show. For some talent, it seemed an admission that NBC executives could not figure out the complexities of the new television landscape. Quipped Peter Tolan, the showrunner for FX’s Rescue Me (2004-2011):
For others, it demonstrated the end of the quality television legacy that NBC had fostered for decades. Claimed Shawn Ryan, showrunner of FX’s The Shield (2002-2008) and Fox’s Lie to Me (2009-2010):
Many worried about the future of the dramatic series on broadcast television and whether ABC, CBS, and Fox would soon follow suit with similar programming strategies. Argued Laura Caraccioli-Davis, an Executive Vice President at Starcom Entertainment:
Rather than continue to fill every time slot with expensive original series, The Jay Leno Show portended more cheap programming across the networks’ prime time schedules.
Given the challenges facing the broadcast television networks—the inundation from cable competition, viewers watching programs through technologies such as the DVR, and the migration of program watching to the Web—it was clear that the broadcast model was in serious need of an overhaul. Yet, many debated whether The Jay Leno Show was even the right direction for a network to take in order to face these challenges. After all, a stripped program in prime time hours had not been successful in U.S. television over the long-term. The last program to try something similar—ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—quickly lost its stellar ratings when its presence was increased to four nights a week on the prime time schedule, a decision that affected the network’s overall ad revenue negatively. While it lacked a successful precedent, The Jay Leno Show hardly featured the characteristics that made contemporary television series profitable either. Stressed showrunner Shawn Ryan about why The Jay Leno Show would ultimately be a failure:
Indeed, a program such as Heroes (2006-2010) was one of the few bright spots NBC had experienced while it had been the fourth place broadcast network. Although cancelled at the end of the 2009-2010 season, at its height Heroes achieved a lot for the troubled network, including:
Unlike this blockbuster series, The Jay Leno Show offered few opportunities for tie-ins and assorted merchandise, little chance for syndication or licensing in overseas markets, and no after-market potential through DVD sales.
In all of the discussion about The Jay Leno Show and what it might indicate about the future of television if it proved successful, the impact the show might have on local stations was rarely mentioned in the press. Tied to the traditional broadcasting model, the affiliate stations’ role in the post-network television environment remains unclear. Journalists and media scholars have discussed how the power of the affiliates has been severely curtailed in the contemporary broadcast environment. For example, media scholar Amanda Lotz contends in The Television Will Be Revolutionized that
Indeed, as the broadcast networks continue to argue for increased retransmission fees from cable operators, some media analysts see the big four soon shifting to more of a cable economic model. One such indication of the adoption of this model is the deal CBS signed with Comcast in 2010 that gave the network approximately fifty cents per subscriber per month beginning in 2012, a figure that continually increases over the ten-year span of the contract. If the broadcast networks eschewed the affiliate model and moved to the cable financing model, each of the big four would be able to command subscriber fees close to the $4.00 per month that the highest paid cable network, ESPN, currently receives given their larger base of viewers and name recognition.
Within the contemporary television landscape, then, local stations are rarely seen as impacting the fortunes of a broadcast network. The first press accounts of the affiliate/network relationship being in jeopardy as a result of The Jay Leno Show appeared when the Sunbeam-owned Boston NBC affiliate announced in April 2009 that they would not air the program and would instead produce a 10 PM local newscast. Claimed Ed Ansin, the chief of Sunbeam:
Within two weeks of the announcement, though, the Boston affiliate backed down and agreed to run the programming as scheduled. Rumors floated that NBC’s general counsel had threatened to turn its owned and operated (O&O) Telemundo station into a new NBC affiliate in Boston and that the company had registered a new domain name for this exact purpose. At the same time, NBC executives highlighted in the press how The Jay Leno Show would save some of Leno’s most well-known bits, such as Headlines, until the end of the program so the viewer would (presumably) stick around for the local news. By June, this affiliate crisis seemed to be over as no other affiliates publicly spoke out about the programming strategy, prompting Variety columnist Brian Lowry to surmise, “It’s No Longer the Affiliates’ Ballgame.” In his piece, Lowry viewed the fundamental network/affiliate relationship as one of uneven power:
Until after the show premiered, Lowry’s was the last major article to discuss the affiliates and the potential impact of The Jay Leno Show on their revenue models.
With all of the discussion about The Jay Leno Show before it even premiered, it was clear that the show’s success was not only important for NBC’s fortunes, but also the (potential) fortunes of its chief competitors, the creative television community, as well as the larger television industry as a whole. But the network’s affiliated stations were positioned as having a minimal role in assessing the show’s overall performance. Nine months after the program was announced, The Jay Leno Show had a lot to prove when it went on the air after having been framed as “The Future of Television,” whether or not the outcome was viewed as positive. As a risky programming decision by NBC, however, the show turned out to have several unintentional effects, few of which were anticipated in the nearly year-long discussion of the program before its prime time debut.