Page L – For NBC, ‘late-night’ starts at 10 p.m. 10/7/2009

By ADAM BUCKMAN

NEW YORK, Oct. 7, 2009 — When Jay Leno joked Monday night about how glad he was to be out of late-night, he wasn’t being completely accurate.

Jay Leno

The truth is, he’s still in late-night – he just happens to be on earlier.

Leno was commenting on the newest round of drama roiling late-night television, chiefly David Letterman’s unusually candid revelations of hanky-panky with female staffers (plural, Dave?  Well, how many exactly!).  For the sake of his joke, Leno also lumped Conan O’Brien’s recent workplace head injury in with the Letterman sex scandal to add heft to the joke’s claim that late-night was beset with danger and chaos.

Danger?  Maybe.  Chaos?  Definitely.  The periodic recurrence of turmoil in late-night TV reminds me of the way Clemenza described the cyclical nature of gang wars in “The Godfather” – every five or 10 years, they’re inevitable.

Leno can joke about it all he wants, but he’s still a late-night player.  His new show walks like a late-night show and talks like one.  Moreover, “The Jay Leno Show” reportedly competes with the late-night shows for guests, so for Jay to position himself as above the late-night fray is disingenuous (recognizing, of course, that he was joking).

In almost every way imaginable, “The Jay Leno Show” is more late-night than prime time, and that’s the whole point.  What NBC is really doing is redefining the entire idea of late-night TV.  The network has never said this publicly, but it seems obvious that “The Jay Leno Show” represents an expansion of late-night into an earlier time period once known as prime time – an expansion that is not dissimilar to the way NBC has extended its morning show, “Today,” into later and later hours of the morning.

For years, “Today” and “Tonight” were the cash-cow bookends of NBC’s daily schedule.  In that context, it makes sense for the network to try and expand these profitable franchises into time periods where it has struggled – mid-mornings, of course, but now prime time.  Whether the network will make the money it believes it can earn with this Leno show at 10 p.m. weekdays remains to be seen.  If the plan works, though, it should not be too surprising to see NBC moving into even earlier evening time periods, perhaps several years from now, with similar forms of non-traditional programming – variety shows, non-scripted shows, whatever you want to call them.

Scripted shows of the type that once went first to NBC are seen more and more frequently on cable these days anyway.  And of the handful of cable networks whose schedules are heavy with these one-hour originals, one of the highest-rated is USA Network, which NBC owns.

David Letterman

But that’s all inside baseball.

For viewers, the tumult in late-night – not only Leno’s move to 10 p.m. and Conan’s move to 11:35, but also this out-of-the-blue sex scandal that threatens to derail Letterman just when he’s doing the best numbers of his career – has meant an agonizing and even traumatic reconfiguring of late-evening viewing habits.  Millions are feeling disoriented and displaced these days in the wake of losing Leno at 11:35 p.m.  And watching him earlier is no substitute, especially since “The Jay Leno Show” pales in quality to Leno’s “Tonight Show.”

The show is a mess.  In no particular order, the problems include: Jay’s monologue, which is not as sharp as it once was, perhaps because the network might have forced a turnover in writing personnel when it told all of Leno’s old “Tonight” staffers that they would have to re-apply for jobs on his new show; the set, which has Jay positioned so far away from Kevin Eubanks, his bandleader but also his sidekick, that the two of them can barely be included in the same camera shot; a heavy reliance on “young” untested comedians, whose heavy emphasis is the kind of thing you might conclude is being encouraged by network suits who believe that these young, antic entertainers will draw the younger viewers the network craves; the racetrack, which must be the single biggest waste of money in the entire development of this new show since these speed-challenge segments, or whatever they are, are of zero interest to anyone watching at home.

Conan O’Brien (right).

In addition, Leno fans are finding it particularly disconcerting to see Jay being run so ragged.  Look, the man is 59 and he’s not exactly the most athletic person you’ve ever come across.  He’s lost some weight, which is great for him, but he’s a little ungainly and he moves around kind of awkwardly.  So why on earth do they have him running from place to place on this show, particularly on those racetrack segments?  Who wants to see a man in a suit running around?  By the end of each show, Jay seems exhausted, happy to finally be settling down for a “Headlines” segment or some such, seated behind a desk where he belongs.

Conan’s “Tonight Show” also seems over-energized, as if someone’s under Conan’s desk lighting matches between his toes.  Hey, NBC, it’s nighttime, we don’t want to watch a three-ring circus in our bedrooms in the middle of the night — whether the middle of the night is defined as 10 p.m. or 11:35 p.m.

Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com

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