News

Leno move may be good for NBC, but not viewers

Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

NBC would like you to believe that its strange scheme to install Jay Leno in a weeknight show at 10 p.m. is a bold stroke of prime-time genius. Don't fall for it. With this move, a once-dominant network is waving the white flag of surrender.

By asking Leno to take the ball and run with the 10 p.m. slot Monday through Friday, the beleaguered Peacock is essentially admitting that it no longer has the resources, the innovative know-how or the brainpower to produce quality late-night dramas.

So sad. So pathetic. This is NBC, after all - the network that gave us cutting-edge 10 p.m. shows such as "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "ER," "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

What's next - infomercials at 9?

This, of course, will be something completely new for prime time - a network airing the same show every night at the same time. And there are advantages for NBC. First and foremost, it prevents Leno from bolting to another network. Think of how embarrassing it would have been for Leno to set up shop at, say, ABC and then beat up on incoming "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien every night.

Most of all, it's cheap, cheap, cheap. Even with the gargantuan salary NBC undoubtedly had to fork over to keep Leno in the fold, it costs much less to put on a late-night gabfest than a quality scripted drama. In this era of corporate downsizing, that's music to the ears of a numbers-crunching bean counter.

Earlier this week, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker hinted in a news conference that this kind of move just might represent the future of network television. "Can we continue to program 22 hours of prime time?" Zucker wondered. "Can we afford to program seven nights a week?"

By installing Leno, with his lukewarm humor, at 10 p.m. weeknights, NBC essentially chops five hours off the 22. Whew, that was easy. Where else can we cut?

But perhaps it's asking too much of NBC - a company wrestling with budget deficits and layoffs - even to attempt to develop quality hit shows. This is a network, after all, that in recent years, has failed miserably at that mission, aside from a minor breakthrough here or there.

The fall season, for example, has been a stupendous embarrassment. An ill-conceived remake of talking-car drama "Knight Rider" sputtered and stalled. A pre-Thanksgiving variety special hosted by Rosie O'Donnell was a wretched stink bomb. The one-time marquee hit "Heroes" experienced a creative brain cramp and plunged in the ratings.

And do we even need to get into the train wrecks that are "My Own Worst Enemy," "Crusoe" and "Kath & Kim"? Just call it must-flee TV.

Things have gotten so bad for the Peacock that, earlier this week, Newsday columnist Verne Gay questioned whether NBC might be "the General Motors of network TV."

And looking ahead to midseason, it doesn't appear to be getting any better. NBC has announced that it will air its tired Donald Trump vehicle, "The Apprentice," in excruciating two-hour blocks. It will also offer yet another dance-competition show, along with a dating series from Ryan Seacrest called "Momma's Boys" and a hidden-camera prank show hosted by Howie Mandel. Remember, this is the network that gave us "The West Wing" and "Seinfeld." Sad, just sad.

On second thought, maybe it's not such a bad idea to air Leno five nights a week in prime time. Obviously, holding NBC programmers responsible for coming up with something fresh, innovative, and original is like putting explosives in the hands of children.

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