Could Jay Leno kill TV drama?

by Chuck Barney

Contra Costa Times (MCT)

11 September 2009



Jay Leno seems like a nice enough guy. Hard worker. Warm personality. He’s even amusing on occasion.

So why, then, am I rooting for him to fail?

Leno, the former undisputed champion of late-night television, returns to our home screens Monday. Only now, he will be on before the late local news, not after it. “The Jay Leno Show” airs at 10 p.m. EDT, five nights a week, on NBC.

Ninety minutes doesn’t seem like all that much of a difference. People have been known to get across the Bay Bridge in less time.

But in the world of network television, it’s a monumental move — sort of like crossing over into another dimension. That’s because Leno will be doing his shtick in the final hour of prime time, real estate NBC traditionally reserved for great scripted dramas such as “ER,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere,” and not-so-great scripted dramas such as “Quantum Leap” and “Lipstick Jungle.”

It’s a move that could dramatically change network television. “If the Leno show works,” former NBC chief Fred Silverman told Time magazine, “it will be the most significant thing to happen in broadcast television in the last decade.”

That’s why I don’t want it to work.

We already have seen, in recent years, a plethora of ambitious scripted programming get scrapped in favor of relatively cheap — and often mind-numbing — reality fare. Now, along comes Leno knocking five more hours of dramatic television off the schedule in one fell swoop.

Like the reality programs, Leno is a money-saver. NBC can crank out a week’s worth of his shows for less than it costs to produce one episode of a glossy drama. In an era of shrinking audiences and economic blues, that warms the heart of a network bean-counter.

But here’s the problem: Television is a business riddled with copycats. So if Leno succeeds, we surely will see network programmers rush to duplicate the strategy.

That will mean even fewer ambitious scripted programs such as “Lost” and more cheap stuff. Lord help us, maybe even Ryan Seacrest will get his own talk show.

NBC, of course, doesn’t want you to view Leno as the man ravaging prime time. A new business model is required, they insist. They need to adapt. Sort of like automakers. And newspapers.

There’s a grain of truth to all of that. Still, something about this just doesn’t feel right. NBC used to be the gold standard when it came to scripted dramas. They can talk about new models all they want, but this seems like they’re simply giving in to creative exhaustion and taking the easy way out. They might as well be waving a white flag of surrender.

Quitters shouldn’t prosper. A lack of innovation shouldn’t be rewarded. Nothing personal, Jay, but I hope this thing goes down in flames.

Topics: jay leno
//Mixed media