Leno’s new show faces heavyweight threats
Chris Forrester

Jay Leno’s new NBC 10pm primetime show will encourage guests to ‘get off the couch’. The Jay Leno show will focus – as ever – on comedy, and “less murder”, a lighthearted criticism of US primetime’s normal 10pm fare of CSI and Law & Order. But rival cable channels see the 10pm slot as a new opportunity to win viewers away from network TV.

This week Disney’s ESPN, Turner Broadcasting’s TBS and TNT are all presenting their new autumn programming line-ups to ad agencies and media buyers, and they are all very much focusing on their 10pm slots, showcasing their attractions as providing alternate programming to those viewers who do not find Leno appealing. Discovery Communications, in its recent presentation, argued that its portfolio of documentary and factual channels was a definite “Leno replacement package” and those advertisers who bought ad-spots in just four Discovery channels (Discovery, Animal Planet, TLC and Travel) would likely beat Leno five nights a week in terms of reach and ratings.

And Discovery is not alone. While few doubt that Leno’s long-term fans will follow him to his new 10pm slot on NBC, most experts anticipate Leno’s show to lose overall rating points. “A further loss of audience is expected when Jay Leno moves to the 10pm time slot this fall,” said Joe Abruzzese, the president of ad sales for Discovery, talking to the New York Times.

Turner Broadcasting’s highly-regarded TWX research division reckons that as many as 500,000 viewers (in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic) will quit NBC, and given that they could have viewed CSI and Law & Order at any time, but haven’t done so, could be grabbed by cable. This is also Discovery’s theory, which is suggesting that basic cable could win an ever-larger slice of the nation’s eyeballs.

Leno typically has some 4.6m viewers tuning in at 11.35pm. The formula for NBC is to take any viewer erosion on Leno’s chin, but remember that the nightly show, which will fill the schedules for 46 weeks of the year, costs a great deal less than ‘normal’ network TV.

Leno’s final 11.35pm ‘Tonight Show’ airs on May 29, and the final week will be filled with star guests such as Billy Crystal, “The Governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Lyle Lovett and others. The final episode features successor Conan O’Brien and musician James Taylor. O’Brien takes over the 11.35pm slot on the following Monday night, June 1.