copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

The white flag of surrender?
NBC, The Jay Leno Show, and failure on contemporary broadcast television

by Kimberly Owczarski

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.[1][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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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:

“I would have liked nothing more than to give it a 52 week try. . . .[The affiliates] made it clear they would be more vocal about their displeasure. Then they started talking about preemption.”[6]

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.[7] 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,

“Failures help us understand the limits of the system as well as the possibilities that got passed over, and thus they need to be viewed alongside clear successes and within the gray area in between.”[8]

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,
and the contemporary television landscape

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] 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.

  • First, they are relatively cheap to produce, which means profit margins can be quite high and predictable. The largest expense is for top-of-the-line talent. For example, in his renegotiation with CBS in 2009, Letterman’s salary was reported to be over $30 million annually but was the largest expense for this program.[18]
  • Second, viewership tends to be regular. While there can be spikes in ratings depending upon the guest, the fan base tends to be fairly steady. This is due to the consistent nature of the programming. Since these talk shows are stripped, they are on at the same time Monday through Friday, nearly every day of the year. There are also fewer reruns of late night talk shows than done with prime time programs.
  • Third, late-night talk shows offer spots for the promotion of network, and larger conglomerate, properties. For example, Bret Michaels, the winner of NBC series The Celebrity Apprentice for season nine, appeared on The Tonight Show on May 25, 2010, to promote himself and the show, while Universal Pictures, another part of the NBC Universal corporate family, used The Tonight Show as a venue to promote the film Get Him to the Greek (Nicholas Stoller, 2010) with an appearance by star Russell Brand on May 24, 2010.
  • Finally, talk shows are easy to adapt to more recent distribution outlets which favor short-form video, including cell phones, iPods, and YouTube. According to media scholar Jeffrey P. Jones in “I Want My Talk TV: Network Talk Shows in a Digital Universe”:

    “[B]ecause talk shows are created in specific segments, they have a natural structural advantage for easy distribution, downloading, and viewing as short snippets in a variety of settings and through multiple technologies (from web and mobile devices to out-of-home viewing screens). As such, the content and from of talk shows are conducive to addressing these changes in distribution, as opposed to the longer 30- and 60-minute long-form programming found in prime time.”[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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:

“We’ve captured lightning in a bottle with this show, and we intend to take full advantage of it.”[26]

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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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.”[33] 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.[34]

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,

“The cause of death was complete exhaustion, compounded by overexposure to harsh competitive elements.”

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,

“I don’t think we’ll see anything like it again.”[35]

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. 

The “Killer App”:
why NBC needed The Jay Leno Show

 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.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38]

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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42]

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.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] By December, The Jay Leno Show was prime time television’s clear leader in product placement with over 1,015 mentions tracked by Nielsen.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48] 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.[49] 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:

  • it allowed NBC executives to keep a valuable personality;
  • it cheaply filled a number of holes on the prime time schedule;
  • it provided a number of opportunities to work with advertisers in new and more engaging ways; and
  • it was viewed as the type of program that could combat the growing penetration of DVRs and the subsequent television viewing practices that accompanied the new technology.

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
potential impact of The Jay Leno Show

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.[50] 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):

“I feel they should take down their American flag and put up a white one. . . . They’ve clearly given up.”[51]

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):

“[T]hat used to be a special network. L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, The Cosby Show, ER, Friends and Seinfeld—there was a whole generation of us that this was the network you turned on first. It’s just sad.”[52]

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:

“It may just get too expensive to continue with the checkerboard model. . . .Every network. . .is looking for creative, cost-controlling scheduling opportunities.”[53]

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:

“What’s the value of the show after it airs? . . . Heroes is very expensive to make, but it has value all across the world. There’s a reason they’re in [the drama] business—when it works, they make a lot of money.”[54]

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:

  • it spawned tie-in comic books, T-shirts, trading cards, and other assorted merchandise;
  • it was licensed in over 150 countries, a feat accomplished within a year of its premiere;
  • it had sold for $300,000 an episode in syndication on the G4 network in its second year on the air; and
  • its first season DVD alone generated over $45 million in sales in its first eight weeks of availability in the domestic marketplace.[55]

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

“new distribution methods are not only eroding the network-affiliate structure that characterized the network era and multi-channel transition, but also [are] leading some to suggest that there may be little need for local affiliates in a post-network era since a near national audience can be reached by cable or satellite, and perhaps someday, the Internet.”[56]

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.[57] 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.[58]

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:

“We don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime. . . .It will be detrimental to our 11 o’clock [newscast]. It will be very adverse to our finances.”[59]

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.[60] 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:

“The days of affiliates exerting substantial sway over network programming decisions have largely dissipated, amid shifting priorities by corporate parents and a troubled economy that has drained local stations’ coffers and thus much of their clout.”[61]

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.

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] 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.

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.

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.

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.


1. All time slots discussed in this essay will use Eastern Standard Time. [return to text]

2. Dobrow, Larry. “Night Time the Right Time in Snaring Young Eyeballs.” Advertising Age 9 May 2005. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

3. Seidman, Robert. “Updated TV Ratings: The Jay Leno Show Premieres Big, Rises to 18.4 Million in the Final #s.” TV by the Numbers 15 September 2009. Web. 8 June 2010.

4. The Super Bowl is typically the most watched program of the year. The 2009 Super Bowl reached around 95 million viewers, thus exposing a large number of people to The Jay Leno Show. See: Collins, Scott. “Super Bowl Gets 95.4 Million Viewers; No. 3 Telecast of All Time.” Los Angeles Times 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 11 Aug. 2014; Stelter, Brian. “NBC Builds Anticipation for 10 P.M.” New York Times 5 August 2009. Web.6 August 2009.

5. Stelter, Brian. “Ad Losses Put Squeeze on TV News.” New York Times 11 May 2009. Web. 4 August 2014.

6. Quoted in Schneider, Michael. “NBC Cancels ‘Jay Leno Show.’” Variety 10 January 2010. Web. 10 January 2010.

7. Curtin, Michael and Jane Shattuc. The American Television Industry. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. 63.

8. Mittell, Jason. “The Aesthetics of Failure.” The Velvet Light Trap. Number 64. Fall 2009. 77.

9. Leno had been ranked in the top ten favorite television personalities every year between 1994 and 2009 but one according to the annual Harris Poll. During many of those years, talk show hosts accounted for at least half of the top ten, which attests to the degree that a stripped program’s regularity builds long-term relationships with viewers.  See: “Here’s Jay! Jay Leno Is America’s Favorite Television Personality.” Harris Interactive 28 January 2009. Web. 4 August 2014.

10. Headlines was a regular segment in which Leno made fun of erroneous headlines found in newspapers across the nation. The segment was so popular that S\several books were published that compiled the most popular Headlines over the years he was on The Tonight Show. Jaywalking was an occasional segment which involved Leno wandering through the streets of Los Angeles and asking people current event or history questions, resulting in humorous and unexpected responses. Several of the more popular individuals featured on Jaywalking received their own segments on The Tonight Show. Battle of the Jaywalk All-Stars featured several of these individuals competing in a Jeopardy-style quiz competition.

11. Timberg, Bernard M. Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 45-47.

12. Ibid. 106 and 151.

13. Ibid. 155.

14. Carter, Bill. “The Late-Night-Lead Turnabout.” New York Times 6 Nov. 1995. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

15. O.J. Simpson, a former professional football player turned actor, was charged with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, in June 1994. After failing to turn himself into police, he led a widely broadcast police chase on June 17, 1994, before surrendering. Beginning in January 1995, Simpson’s eight-month long trial was controversial, and it was covered endlessly by news outlets. The length of the trial, as well as its highly public nature, made it a rife target for comedic bits, including Leno’s “The Dancing Itos” segment making fun of presiding judge Lance Ito.  See: Lowry, Brian. “Changing Channels: Top Few Reasons Behind Dave’s Dive, Jay’s Rise.” Variety 3 Jan. 1996. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

16. Carter, Bill. “Fox Will Sign Up 12 New Stations; Takes 8 from CBS.” New York Times 24 May 1994. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

17. Lowry, Brian. “Low Lead-in Lessens Lead of Letterman.” Variety 10 Mar. 1995. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

18. Littleton, Cynthia. “Letterman Staying ‘Late?’” Variety 8 June 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

19. Jones, Jeffrey P. “I Want My Talk TV: Network Talk Shows in a Digital Universe.” Beyond Prime Time: Television Programming in the Post-Network Era. Ed. Amanda Lotz. New York: Routledge, 2009. 15.

20. O’Connell, Michael. “TV Ratings: 11.3 Million Viewers Watched Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ Premiere.” Hollywood Reporter 18 February 2014. Web. 2 June 2014.

21. Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 8.

22. Ibid. 19.

23. Hibberd, James. “DVR Data Has Nets Pausing.” Hollywood Reporter 14 Oct. 2008. LexisNexis. Web. 8 Aug. 2014.

24. Raphael, Chad. “The Political Economic Origins of Reali-TV.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 124-127.

25. Bierbaum, Tom. “‘Millionaire’ Helps ABC Cash Nielsens.” Variety 31 August 1999. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

26. Quoted in Adalian, Josef. “ABC Slots Sweeps with ‘Millionaire.’” Variety 24 September 1999. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

27. Bierbaum, Tom. “‘Millionaire’ Dividends Sweeping ABC to Crown.” Variety 22 November 1999. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

28. Streisand, Betsy. “Millionaire’s Luster Fades.” U.S. News & World Report 23 October 2000. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

29. Roberts, Johnnie L. “How to Use a Lifeline.” Newsweek 28 February 2000. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

30. Ibid.

31. Carter, Bill. “Fixing a Vulnerable ‘Millionaire.’” New York Times 30 October 2000. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

32. Kissell, Rick. “Peacock Pads Lead.” Variety 24 May 2001. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

33. Quoted in Collins, Scott. “ABC Vows More ‘Traditional’ Fare.” Hollywood Reporter 21 March 2002. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

34. Schneider, Michael. “Peacock Preens.” Variety 23 May 2002. LexisNexis. Web. 6 June 2010.

35. Quoted in Carter, Bill. “Who Wants to Bury a Millionaire?” New York Times 20 May 2002. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

36. Lotz, Amanda. “Must-See TV: NBC’s Dominant Decades.” NBC: America’s Network. Ed. Michele Hilmes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

37. Gorman, Bill. “10 PM Ratings Grab Because of The Jay Leno Show Isn’t That Big a Deal.” TV By the Numbers 12 September 2009. Web. 18 June 2010.

38. Elliott, Stuart. “A Deluge By NBC to Promote Leno’s New Show.” New York Times 13 September 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 15 May 2012.

39. Undercovers was a high-profile series for NBC, as the pilot was directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by his studio, Bad Robot. NBC cancelled the show after its eleventh episode due to continued low ratings, and the last two episodes never aired on the network. With the $10 million budget for the pilot, and an average of $3 million per episode, NBC spent at least $40 million on this one program.  See: Rosen, Christopher. “NBC Unveils New Business Plan: Throw Money at the Problem.” Movieline 3 May 2010. LexisNexis. Web. 18 May 2012.

40. Arango, Tim and Bill Carter. “An Unsteady Future for Broadcast.” New York Times 20 November 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 18 May 2012.

41. Only Community, which aired as part of NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, was not produced or co-produced by Universal Media Studios during the 2008-2009 prime time season. It was produced by Sony Pictures Television.

42. “Panelists Call NBC’s ‘Leno’ Move Gutsy.” Hollywood Reporter 22 September 2009. Web. 23 September 2009.

43. Steinberg, Brian. “‘Sunday Night Football’ Remains Costliest TV Show.” Advertising Age 26 October 2009. Web. 26 October 2009.

44. During the upfront advertising period in which advertisers pay for spots to be aired during the upcoming season’s prime time hours, the network provides a guaranteed audience size for a program. If a program does not meet its guaranteed audience size, the network must offer supplemental time to the advertiser to make up the difference between the guaranteed audience size and the actual size (make goods).

45. “Nielsen IAG Product Placement Activity Report.” Advertising Age 2 October 2009. Web. 2 October 2009.

46. Schneider, Michael. “Leno Leads in Product Placement.” Variety 23 December 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 14 June 2010.

47. Quoted in Carter, Bill. “NBC Offers Marketers an Expanded Fall Lineup.” New York Times 4 May 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 14 June 2010.

48. Adgate, Brad. “It’s 10 O’Clock…Do You Know What’s on TV?” Advertising Age 3 November 2009. Web. 3 November 2009.

49. Quoted in Stelter, Brian. “Jay Leno’s Move Hints at Future of Prime time TV.” New York Time. 12 December 2008. LexisNexis. Web. 7 August 2009.

50. Schneider, Michael. “CBS Unveils ‘Project LENO.’” Variety 25 June 2009. Web. 26 June 2009.

51. Quoted in “TV Writers Slam NBC for ‘Leno Show.’” Hollywood Reporter 7 August 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 15 June 2010.

52. Quoted in Poniewozik, James. “Jay Leno Is the Future of TV. Seriously.” Time 3 September 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

53. Quoted in Stelter, “Jay Leno’s Move Hints at Future of Prime time TV.”

54. Quoted in “TV Writers Slam NBC for ‘Leno Show.’”

55. Frutkin, A.J. “TV Hero.” Mediaweek 20 August 2007. LexisNexis. Web. 21 June 2010; Dempsey, John and Michael Schneider. “G4, Mojo Welcome ‘Heroes’ Re-runs.” Variety 10 October 2007. LexisNexis. Web. 15 June 2010; “US DVD Sales Chart for Week Ending October 21, 2007.” The Numbers n.d. Web. 21 June 2010.

56. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized. 141.

57. Lowry, Tom. “Comcast Inks Early Pact with CBS.” Variety 2 August 2010. Web. 6 January 2011.

58. Sehjal, Ujala. “Fox News Is Almost as Important as ESPN, and Wants Subscriber Fees to Reflect That.” Business Insider 8 December 2010. LexisNexis. Web. 6 January 2011.

59. Quoted in Schneider, Michael. “Boston Doesn’t Want Jay Leno Show.” Variety 2 April 2009. Web. 9 July 2009.

60. Schneider, Michael. “Boston to Air Primetime Leno.” Variety 13 April 2009. Web. 9 July 2009.

61. Lowry, Brian. “It’s No Longer the Affiliates’ Ballgame.” Variety 5 June 2009. Web. 9 July 2009.

62. Quoted in Carter, Bill. “Debate over Effects of Leno’s Show.” New York Times 11 October 2009. Web. 11 October 2009.

63. TNT eventually picked up the series with season two and Southland aired on the network until April 2013.

64. Quoted in Andreeva, Nellie. “‘Southland’ Cancelled.” Hollywood Reporter 8 Oct. 2009. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

65. Kissell, Rick. “O’Brien a Demo Dynamo.” Variety 28 August 2009. Web. 15 June 2010.

66. Seidman, Robert. “Tonight Show Premiere Week Down Versus Last Year.” TV By the Numbers 1 October 2009. Web. 16 June 2010; Gorman, Bill. “Letterman Tops Conan in Viewers, Adults 18-49 & 25-54 for the First Time Since 2005.” TV By the Numbers 1 October 2009. Web. 16 June 2010.

67. Kissell, Rick. “Latenight’s Shift.” Variety 13 Nov. 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

68. Quoted in Malone, Michael. “NBC Affiliates Okay on ‘Jay’ So Far.” Broadcasting & Cable 29 September 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 2 November 2009.

69. Flint, Joe. “Jay Leno’s New Time Slot Wreaks Havoc for NBC Affiliates.” Los Angeles Times 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

70. Quoted in Malone, Michael. “NBC Affiliates Standing by ‘Jay Leno Show.’” Broadcasting & Cable 30 October 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 2 November 2009.

71. Ovide, Shira. “NBC, Affiliates Begin to Make Up.” Wall Street Journal 25 January 2010. Web. 31 January 2010.

72. O&Os are owned and operated stations by the networks. The FCC limits the number of O&O stations a network can own so that they do not surpass a reach of 39% of all U.S. television households. In 2009, NBC Universal owned 10 NBC stations. Although the specific amounts that the NBC O&O’s lost as a result of the audience drop-off are not available, a few reports indicate the significant impact that The Jay Leno Show had on them. First, Shira Ovide of the Wall Street Journal estimates that NBC’s New York station was losing over $158,000 per week as a result of the audience dropoff, while the Los Angeles station was losing over $112,000 weekly. Second, General Electric’s 2009 annual report indicates that the NBC Universal subsidiary performed worse in terms of both revenues and profits than in 2008 partly as a result of lower advertising revenues in the broadcast television business. See: General Electric. 2009 Annual Report. Fairfield, CT: 2010. Web. 6 January 2011.

73. Schneider, Michael. “NBC Reality Check.” Variety 11 January 2010. Web. 30 January 2010.

74. Rice, Lynette. “NBC Denies That Jay Leno Is Being Yanked.” Entertainment Weekly 7 January 2010. Web. 7 January 2010.

75. Quoted in Schneider, “NBC Cancels ‘Jay Leno Show.’”

76. Quoted in Stelter, “Jay Leno’s Move Hints at Future of Prime time TV.”

77. Gorman, Bill. “Final 2009-10 Broadcast Primetime Show Average Viewership.” TV By the Numbers 16 June 2010. Web. 16 June 2010.

78. Malone, Michael. “CBS Affils Want 10 P.M. Dramas to Fill Out Hour.” Broadcasting & Cable 19 October 2009. LexisNexis. Web. 18 June 2010.

79. Weisman, Jon. “‘Parenthood’ Makes NBC Proud.” Variety 7 April 2010. Web. 17 June 2010.

80. Carter, Bill. “Viewer Age Rises with Leno Return.” New York Times 11 April 2010. Web. 12 April 2010.

81. Quoted in Schneider, Michael. “Conan to NBC: Drop Dead.” Variety 12 January 2010. Web. 12 January 2010.

82. Bercovici, Jeff. “Leno and NBC: Measuring Damage to a Late Night Brand.” Daily Finance 15 March 2010. LexisNexis. Web. 7 January 2011.

83. Hibberd, James. “Leno Ratings: ‘Tonight’s’ Worst Summer Ever.” Hollywood Reporter 3 September 2010. Web. 4 September 2010.

84. Bercovici, Jeff. “Jay Leno’s Pay Cut Reflects Diminished Stat of Late Night.” Forbes 20 August 2012. Web. 4 June 2014.

85. Ciminelli, David. “First Advertisers on Conan O’Brien Show Revealed.” Hollywood Reporter 4 November 2010. Web. 5 November 2010.

86. Carter, Bill. “High Hopes for Conan O’Brien’s Debut.” New York Times 7 November 2010. Web. 8 November 2010.

87. Quoted in Ausiello, Michael. “NBC Confirms ‘Jay Leno Show’ Leaving Primetime.” Entertainment Weekly 10 January 2010. Web. 10 January 2010.

88. Quoted in Sepinwall, Alan. “NBC’s 2010-11 Schedule: Still Paying the Price for ‘The Jay Leno Show.’” Hitfix 16 May 2010. Web. 8 Aug. 2014.

89. “Booming ‘Voice.’” Variety 5 May 2011. LexisNexis. Web. 8 Aug. 2014.

90. Revolution was moved from its Monday timeslot for the 2nd season to Wednesdays at 8 PM, and it never recovered the ratings seen with The Voice as its lead-in.

91. Carter, Bill. “NBC Rides ‘The Voice’ From Worst to First Place.” New York Times 9 Dec. 2012. Web. 8 Aug. 2014.

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