The John Wells-produced Southland was a casualty of the stripped talk show. Despite a strong first season in ratings, NBC executives cancelled the show before the second season even aired because it no longer fit into their schedule. TNT picked up the rights, and aired the program for several more seasons. With the abrupt cancellation, NBC severed a very important relationship with Wells, who had several hits with the network including ER, The West Wing (1999-2006) and Third Watch (1999-2005).

Trauma was one of the new dramas NBC ordered for the 2009-2010 prime time lineup. It did not feature any well-known stars, but it did require expensive action scenes because of its focus on paramedics in San Francisco. It was often last in its time slot amongst the four broadcast networks.

In 2004, NBC announced that Conan O’Brien would take over hosting duties for The Tonight Show in five years.  On June 1,2009, O’Brien replaced Jay Leno as the show’s host.  While the ratings initially slipped with overall viewers, O’Brien regularly beat David Letterman in the 18-49 demographic until The Jay Leno Show premiered in September. At that point, O’Brien’s viewership in all demographics began to noticeably decline.

Jimmy Fallon took over the 12:35 AM slot after The Tonight Show on March 2, 2009, replacing Conan O’Brien.  Their main competitor in the time slot, Craig Ferguson on CBS, had never beaten either host’s NBC show in the ratings until September 2009, when The Jay Leno Show started in prime time.

The last episode of The Jay Leno Show aired February 9, 2010. Leno’s monologue and several taped segments were self-effacing.  A number of celebrities came on the program to highlight what a disaster the prime time experiment had been. For example, Donald Trump via a live television feed told Leno “You’re fired,” a nod to his trademarked line on NBC’s The Apprentice.

As the fight for The Tonight Show between Leno and Conan got more heated, mainstream and online sources often painted Leno as the bad guy. This TMZ game required you to move Conan towards his contract by using your mouse before Leno touched you and you lost hosting duties. Available at: http://www.tmz.com/2010/01/11/the-conan-obrien-contract-game/

For the entirety of the January 12, 2010, episode of his ABC late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel impersonated Jay Leno. He made fun of his typical segments, such as “Headlines,” and even the way Leno speaks. Two days later, Kimmel appeared on a segment of The Jay Leno Show where he continued to hurl insults at Leno for the debacle with Conan. For example, “Listen, Jay, Conan and I have children....All you have to take care of is cars...We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For God’s sake, leave our shows alone!”

In early 2013, rumors began to circulate that Jimmy Fallon would take over The Tonight Show from Leno within the year. A video ran between the two shows on April 1, 2013, where the two men sing a version of West Side Story’s “Tonight” about the ongoing shuffle of the late-night program. Referencing Fallon’s appeal in the younger demos and Leno’s ratings, it was an attempt to show that the two sides were civil in the ongoing debate about who would host the show. 

As Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno traded barbs about the fate of The Tonight Show, fans showed support for Team Coco (O’Brien’s nickname) by updating their Facebook and Twitter images. Rallies were also held in front of NBC studios, where fans marched with the “I’m with Coco” sign.

Conan’s late-night program premiered on TBS in November 2010, about nine months after Leno resumed the hosting duties of The Tonight Show

NBC placed its new J.J. Abrams’ show Revolution after its huge ratings hit The Voice on Monday nights at 10 PM. Revolution debuted as the top new program for Fall 2012, and maintained strong ratings throughout its first season. It was moved to Wednesday nights for its second season, where it struggled in the ratings and was subsequently cancelled.


Determining the “Jay Leno Effect”

After being on the air for two weeks, several publications, including Advertising Age and the New York Times, returned to the debate about the potential effects of The Jay Leno Show. Leno’s ratings were not spectacular, but they were usually above the 1.5 rating the network had guaranteed advertisers and thus the show remained profitable. While Jeff Gaspin stressed to the press that “We’ll make money at 10 o’clock this year, I guarantee,” other aspects of NBC’s bottom line looked less assured.[62] [open endnotes in new window] The rest of NBC’s prime time schedule remained a mess; the network’s late-night ratings had declined sharply; and local affiliates saw a negative impact on their newscasts’ ratings. Although the wait and see strategy continued to be thrown out by NBC executives to the press, by October it was clear that the network was scrambling to fix the many unforeseen problems created by the stripped program.

Perhaps the first visible effect of The Jay Leno Show was the unexpected cancellation of Southland (2009-2013), the John Wells-produced drama set in the Los Angeles Police Department.[63] The first seven episodes of the series ran in the spring of 2009 at the 10 PM hour. After just a few of those episodes aired, NBC renewed the series for a second season. In August, with a month to go before the show’s second season premiere, NBC executives announced that they were moving back Southland until October in order to give it more of a marketing push. Then, on October 8, Southland was abruptly cancelled, despite having five episodes ready to air. Although not directly cited in any of the articles, journalists hinted that NBC executives found the content of the show to be too dark for a 9 PM time slot and finally gave up trying to schedule it. Wells, however, directly attacked the lack of prime time real estate left in NBC’s schedule for the show’s cancellation:

“I’m disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically-acclaimed series that was for so many years, a hallmark of their success.”[64]

With Southland’s cancellation, NBC severed its lengthy relationship with Wells, who served as an executive producer on several former NBC hits including E.R., Third Watch (1999-2005), and The West Wing (1999-2006).

Not only did NBC face the fallout from the poor handling of Southland, but its other dramatic series were also suffering as a result of placement to earlier timeslots. Law & Order: SVU (1999-present) had habitually won its Tuesday 10 PM time slot in the past, but the show was moved to Wednesday at 9 PM to accommodate The Jay Leno Show. In its new timeslot, Law & Order: SVU regularly came in fourth place. In addition, neither of its two freshman dramatic series—Trauma (2009-2010) and Mercy (2009-2010)—had made any traction and were often last in their time periods. Like Southland, neither program had received much promotion as a result of the focus on The Jay Leno Show. In fact, NBC found that none of its dramas were doing well in the Nielsen ratings, many of which had been moved around or put into a too early time slot to accommodate the stripped schedule of the prime time talk show.

It was not only the dramatic series in prime time that were affected by The Jay Leno Show. With Jay Leno’s talk show available during prime time hours, NBC’s late-night programs also began to take a hit in the ratings, particularly Leno’s former home, The Tonight Show. When Conan O’Brien took over the late-night franchise in June 2009, audience shifting was expected. O’Brien started losing to David Letterman in terms of total viewers in the time slot, though O’Brien maintained a slight edge with the younger demographics. By the end of August 2009, O’Brien was still the leader in the 18-49 demographic by about 20%, while Letterman continued to win more viewers in total.[65]

After O’Brien’s fall premiere a few weeks later, however, he started to slip. This fall premiere week was also the first week since The Jay Leno Show debuted that both Letterman and O’Brien had new episodes. For the fall premiere week, O’Brien’s viewership was down 49% from the previous year (with Leno), and The Tonight Show lost to Letterman in three key categories that week—total viewers, adults 18-49, and adults 25-54—for the first time since 2005.[66] Over the next few months, O’Brien’s ratings did not much improve with total viewers, although he remained competitive in the 18-49 demographic.

In addition to the ratings slip seen with The Tonight Show, The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon also saw significant drops. In the 12:35 PM timeslot, Fallon started losing viewers to CBS’s The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Until November 2009, Ferguson had never beat the NBC competition (whether O’Brien, in his former home, or Fallon) since he started hosting in 2005.[67] It was an ominous sign for NBC’s late-night fortunes as O’Brien’s troubles coincided with the premiere of The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show started to provide a weak lead-in to The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Overall, the performance of The Jay Leno Show most affected the NBC affiliates. For the first few months on air, the affiliates seemed to toe NBC’s company line about The Jay Leno Show. A few weeks into the season, Broadcasting and Cable ran a story on the NBC affiliates with the headline “NBC Affiliates Okay on ‘Jay’ So Far.” Most of the representatives cited in the article reinforced NBC’s strategy that it was too early to tell, that the program needed long-term assessment. For example, Donita Todd, the Vice President and General Manager for NBC affiliate WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, claimed:

“The focus of this show is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. . . .It’s a 52-week platform, and [Leno’s] success is measured on how it does over the course of a year.”[68]

In mid-October, Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the affiliates’ growing woes with their 11 PM newscasts. Three station representatives were quoted in the article—one positive about Leno’s impact, one quite negative, and one that again suggested it was too early to tell. Stated Jordan Wertlieb, the president and general manager of Baltimore affiliate WBAL:

“People want to declare the game over because we are down a couple of runs after the first inning. There is a long way to go. . . .We look at this as a 52-week strategy.”[69]

A few weeks later, Broadcasting and Cable ran a second story on the NBC affiliates, “NBC Affiliates Standing By ‘Jay Leno Show.’” Although the “Jay Leno Effect” is brought up in the article, most of the representatives quoted in the article again toe the company line of waiting for the results of the November sweeps. After all, argued the President and General Manager of the Cleveland NBC affiliate,

“It’s still early—we haven’t gotten the time change yet, and we haven’t had the awful weather. It’s always dangerous to make a statement before the weather gets ugly.”[70]

After the sweeps period is over at the end of November, it is often the time of year that weather turns ugly. The sweeps—which occur four times during the year—are the key measurement months that determine how many viewers watched a network and how much the network and its affiliated stations can charge advertisers to reach those viewers. Ugly certainly describes the fortunes of a number of NBC affiliates in November 2009 as ratings were significantly down from the previous year. The rumored “Jay Leno Effect” was a clear fact by this point.

A number of local stations experienced drops of twenty percent or more in their 11 PM news ratings with The Jay Leno Show as a lead-in. Termed “the Jay Leno effect,” the resulting loss of advertising revenue was a big factor in these stations pushing for the show’s cancellation.

From the previous November, NBC stations suffered massive drops in viewership: Washington, D.C. down by 25%; Chicago down by 32.4%; Los Angeles down by 42.9%; and New York down by 47.6% to name but a few.[71] Several of these cities represented NBC’s O&O stations, which certainly impacted the company’s own advertising revenues.[72] By the end of December, as many as one-third of NBC affiliates threatened to preempt The Jay Leno Show.[73] On January 7, 2010, NBC issued a press release claiming that The Jay Leno Show was not cancelled; indeed, the release assured,

“Jay Leno is one of the most compelling entertainers in the world today. As we have said all along, Jay’s show has performed exactly as we anticipated on the network. It has, however, presented some issues for our affiliates.”[74]

Yet, three days later, NBC issued another press release: the program was in fact cancelled. In the release, Jeff Gaspin stressed,

“While performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliate needs.”[75]

The failed programming experiment

In the fallout from the removal of The Jay Leno Show from NBC’s prime time schedule, three key lessons emerged from the wreckage. First, despite the limited focus by the press on the affiliates before The Jay Leno Show premiered, they ended up being the most important component affecting NBC’s business strategy. When The Jay Leno Show was announced in December 2008, Jeffrey Zucker, the President and Chief Executive Officer of NBC Universal, emphasized that the program was an attempt to change the way broadcast networks operate:

“We do have to continue to rethink what a broadcast network is. . . . [Or] the broadcast networks will end up like the newspaper business or, worse, like the car companies.”[76]

As much as the post-network television business is evolving, it is key that NBC executives chose to stick with a base of the old model—the network affiliates—even though a new model—the stripping of a cheaply produced program—was profitable for the network itself. As such, the cancellation of the show demonstrated that the reliance on affiliates is still central to how the broadcast networks view their current business models.

Second, despite the struggles currently facing the 10 PM hour, the failure of The Jay Leno Show indicated that a quality dramatic series is still an important lead-in for the local news. One of the few rookie series to perform well in the 2009-2010 season was CBS’s Tuesday 10 PM-scheduled The Good Wife (2009-present), which averaged over thirteen million viewers per week.[77] Indeed, CBS’s improved track record with the 10 PM hour in the fall of 2009 against Leno led to a 15% ratings increase in its affiliates’ local news markets.[78] The Good Wife’s performance certainly contributed to these local affiliates’ ratings increases.

CBS’s The Good Wife (2009-present) was a huge hit in its Tuesday 10 PM time slot during the 2009-2010 season against The Jay Leno Show. As a strong lead-in, it helped CBS affiliates experience ratings increases in many markets around the United States. One of the replacements for The Jay Leno Show in the 10 PM timeslot was Parenthood (2010-present). Based on a hit 1989 movie, the program featured a number of known TV stars including Peter Krause (HBO’s Six Feet Under), Lauren Graham (The WB’s Gilmore Girls) and Craig T. Nelson (ABC’s Coach).  It dramatically increased the ratings experienced by The Jay Leno Show.

One of NBC’s replacements for the cancelled The Jay Leno Show was Parenthood (2010-present), an adaptation of the popular Ron Howard-directed film. Although only watched by an average of 6 million viewers per week, Parenthood did well in the 18-49 demographic and received a 2.6 rating/7 share in the Tuesday 10 PM time slot.[79] Based on its short-run performance, Parenthood received an order for a second season. In all, viewership was up 50% on NBC for the 10 PM hour when the network returned to airing dramatic series in March.[80] In fact, NBC scheduled four new dramas for the 10 PM hour the next season, clearly reversing its programming strategy from The Jay Leno Show the year prior.

The Fall 2010 schedule for NBC features four new dramas in the 10 PM slot vacated by The Jay Leno Show. None of those shows lasted more than a season.

Finally, the most important and long-term impact of The Jay Leno Show was on late-night talk show programming. When Gaspin announced the demise of the prime time program, rumors circulated that an 11:35 PM spot would be made for Leno to do a half-hour show to lead-in to O’Brien and The Tonight Show, which would be then bumped to 12:05 AM. However, O’Brien took his disapproval of NBC executives’ new strategy to the public, suggesting that these executives

“decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.”[81]

Over the next few weeks, O’Brien and Leno took moments in their monologues to eviscerate each other; executives shifted the focus of NBC’s overall troubles to O’Brien; and viewers tuned in to see the melee unfold. Ultimately, O’Brien stepped down as host of The Tonight Show on January 22, 2010, and Jay Leno returned as host on March 1, 2010.

Both The Tonight Show franchise and Leno’s image were tarnished by all of the ugliness. Comedic bits by fellow late-night hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, and Craig Ferguson painted Leno as a greedy, mean-spirited, unfunny host. When Leno returned to late-night in March, surveys demonstrated a huge increase in the number of people who looked at him unfavorably.[82] Leno’s ratings did not best O’Brien’s numbers for The Tonight Show for his first few months back and The Tonight Show suffered its worst summer ever in the program’s long history.[83] By December 2010, Leno’s ratings were near, or beating, O’Brien’s numbers as The Tonight Show host, but they were a long way from the ratings he achieved before he left. By August 2012, his viewership was still down over 25% percent from before his prime time program, and the viewership numbers were so dire at The Tonight Show that Leno had to take a 20% pay cut and layoff several staff members.[84] Over the next two years until he retired from The Tonight Show (again), the numbers only approached his pre-The Jay Leno Show ratings on special occasions such as in the week-long buildup to his final episode in February 2014.

In addition to the hit the viewership took on The Tonight Show, this latest late-night war led to yet another competitor. Although Fox executives and O’Brien had several discussions about launching a late-night talk show on the network, the deal ultimately stalled when the network could not get all of the clearances with its affiliates. Again, this was another indication of the continued reliance on affiliation as the primary business model for broadcast networks. O’Brien ultimately chose to create a late-night program with TBS. Although a cable network, TBS at the time featured the late-night talk show with the youngest average audience, Lopez Tonight (2009-2011).

Before O’Brien’s TBS show, Conan, even premiered in November 2010, 30-second commercials were fetching between $30,000 and $40,000, rates that were very close to those of Leno’s and Letterman’s programs since TBS was already the number one cable network in the 18-34 demographic.[85] Given that cable is not available in every U.S. household, there was little chance that Conan would ever beat Leno in total viewers, but he only needed to reach a 0.5 rating in the 18-49 demographic to be considered profitable for the network.[86] Now, as a result of the fracas over The Tonight Show, the broadcast networks’ late-night programs had a viable competitor on cable, particularly for the demographic most prized by advertisers. Thus, the “Jay Leno Effect” was not just on NBC’s prime time schedule or on the affiliate stations, but also on the late-night landscape.

Unlike most television series failures, The Jay Leno Show left an indelible mark on NBC’s programming strategies and provided several lessons about the contemporary television landscape. In the press, The Jay Leno Show was often described as an experiment and while it proved to be a failure, it reiterated the continued reliance on the affiliates, the viability of the 10 PM drama, and the importance of the late-night talk show. Perhaps its most enduring lesson, though, is about the price of taking risks.

While using star power and a proven genre hardly seem like risky moves, the fact that NBC executives decided to strip The Jay Leno Show in prime time clearly showed a rare form of risk-taking with the broadcast schedule. Given all of the challenges the broadcast networks currently face, new types of programs and new approaches to programming are overdue. While this particular risk might not have paid off for the network, it clearly was an attempt to shift the nature of what constituted prime time broadcast television. Asked about whether The Jay Leno Show had been worth it to NBC, Gaspin replied:

“I don’t think it’s wrong to take chances. . . .Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Maybe we were a little too early on [in reinventing the 10 p.m. hour]. I still think you have to play with your schedule a little bit differently. . . .By the fall, you may see us do some interesting stuff with the schedule.”[87]

Perhaps he was right and it was too early for this type of experiment. While making some strides away from the broadcast model that has defined television for decades, it was clear from the cancellation of The Jay Leno Show that NBC was not ready to eschew that model entirely.

Gaspin’s quote, taken from an article in January 2010 when The Jay Leno Show had just been cancelled, hinted at a continued playing around with the schedule for the fall 2010 season. But perhaps the “Jay Leno Effect” had more impact than he cared to admit. At the May 2010 Upfronts, NBC released its first post-The Jay Leno Show schedule. A number of new series were lined up—including The Event (2010), a serialized drama heavily influenced by ABC’s popular hit Lost (2004-2010), and Undercovers, a spy series from executive producer J.J. Abrams of Lost fame. However, NBC’s schedule hardly had the edge of a year prior. Spinoffs of established series, prominent producers, crime procedurals—with that risk-taking impulse out of its system, NBC’s schedule looked like every other season, every other broadcast network. NBC executives had learned a valuable lesson. Mimic the successful programming seen on the other broadcast networks rather than significantly alter the prime time schedule. At the Upfronts in May 2010, Gaspin noted the new direction of NBC’s schedule was a direct result of The Jay Leno Show’s aftermath:

“The thing that we learned from this year is that if you’re going to compete at 10 o’clock, you have to put your best content on. . . .There’s too much competition from cable and from DVR’s.”[88]

None of these attempts succeeded, as each of these programs struggle to find ratings in the 18-49 demographic. In the aftermath of the failed The Jay Leno Show, NBC remained the fourth-placed broadcast network for the next few years, unable to successfully negotiate the larger forces impacting the broadcast television industry.

While The Jay Leno Show was ultimately a failure, it did provide a sense of the type of program that could succeed for NBC in the post-network environment—a well-tested format that featured big named talent and took up several timeslots on the weekly schedule. In that regard, The Voice (2011-present) had many similarities to The Jay Leno Show.Based on a highly successful Dutch television series, The Voice debuted on NBC in April 2011 to huge ratings, particularly in the 18-49 demographic. Promotions highlighted the big stars—CeeLo Green, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, and Adam Levine—attached to the singing competition show. Airing in blocks on Monday and Tuesday nights, The Voice filled several timeslots that had been previously vulnerable for NBC. It also earned respectable ratings in reruns on Saturday nights. The last third of the competition episodes aired live, which encouraged live viewing rather than timeshifting via DVR.

But that is where the similarities end. Unlike The Jay Leno Show which was meant to keep development and production costs down for the struggling network, executives at NBC used the success of The Voice as an investment in dramatic programming. Weeks after The Voice premiered, NBC Universal chief executive officer Steve Burke assured shareholders that despite the show’s success, the company would be investing an additional $200 million in production and development of fictional series for the 2011-12 schedule.[89] Furthermore, executives scheduled the most promising dramatic programs after The Voice’s two-hour timeslot on Mondays, which successfully launched two 10 PM dramas—Revolution (2012-2014) and The Blacklist (2013-present)—for the network.[90] By December 2012, NBC had moved from last to first place among the broadcast networks. New York Times writer Bill Carter profiled the show’s impact on the network and asked,

“Could it still be true that even the worst performing television network is only one hit away from a turnaround?”[91]

With the lessons learned from the failure of The Jay Leno Show, NBC finally found a show that successfully adapted to the post-network marketplace through its clever use of traditional broadcast programming strategies and its reliance on live viewing—the “killer app” they had been seeking for years.

The Voice premiered on NBC in 2011, and became an immediate hit for the network. With its star power and flexible scheduling across several nights of the week, the program helped propel NBC to a first-place network finish for the first time in a decade.

NBC placed the James Spader-led The Blacklist after The Voice in the Fall of 2013. It quickly became the top rated new series, and maintained strong ratings throughout its first season. NBC kept its Monday 10 PM timeslot for its second season, but chose to put another new program there during The Blacklist’s hiatus, a testament to the power of The Voice as a lead-in.

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