NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Ad buyers say they're interested in putting their clients in a new prime-time talk/variety show featuring Jay Leno on NBC next fall, as they cast about for new ways to use broadcast TV to reach millions of consumers while ratings continue to fall.
NBC will in the fall shore up its poorly performing program schedule with an original nightly talk show featuring Mr. Leno at 10 p.m. In doing so, NBC has managed to put an idea into place that reduces its dependence on the costly but largely ratings-challenged programming it has been churning out for the last few seasons. For advertisers, the show represents a way to latch onto a program that will be original for most of the year and be more tied in to events of the day than the typical comedy or drama.
Make it work
"They need to change their model. A healthy way to do that is to take talent that they have and don't want to lose and try to find a way for it to work" with new methods, said Carrie Drinkwater, senior VP-co-director, national broadcast at Havas' MPG.
The new program, as proposed by NBC, would offer viewers the popularity and humor of Mr. Leno at a time of day when most other networks are showing police procedurals or dramas. Among ad buyers, the theory is that the program would represent a "more DVR-proof genre than traditional prime time," said Donna Speciale, president-investment and activation at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest.
What's more, Mr. Leno could prove formidable in certain respects. It's not as if ABC has had any breakouts this year at 10 p.m., and Fox gives that hour over to its affiliates to broadcast local news. The move would also give NBC a means to keep Mr. Leno's older-skewing audience a chance to watch his program in full without being tempted to go to sleep. During a conference call Tuesday, Mr. Leno noted that his current "Tonight" program often has to reckon with a six-minute ad break around the midnight hour during which many viewers decide to hit the sack.
Advertisers and buyers say they realize the move is largely prodded by economics. "It's easier to program him every hour than it is to do scripted television. Something NBC has been consistently doing is removing costs. Listen, he's a known product. He's got a huge following. If they do it right, it could be really successful," said Peter Gardiner, partner-chief media officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, who has several clients in late-night shows.
"There aren't too many programs that are attracting the kinds of audience that they need to pay for a new drama, so I think they've got to look at all options. It's probably a very smart thing to do," said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer at the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust.
NBC executives indicated today that the Leno move would allow them to focus on making better programs and give them a base to position NBC as a place for laughs, not police procedurals or dramas with protracted and enigmatic storylines. "The idea of Jay building on in prime time every night of the week not only adds stability to the great lineup, but reinforces us as home of the best comedy," said Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC's entertainment division. Executives said the move had the support of the network's affiliates as well as advertisers.
While the move is a brash one, it also spotlights NBC's weaker position among broadcast networks. On Monday, NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Jeff Zucker suggested that all practices at the company's flagship property -- from programming to scheduling -- were being examined as broadcasters face ratings erosion and new competition from digital media. "I think it's a pretty radical sign that the networks are changing their model," said Chris Neel, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic's Initiative.
Some hiccups may result. Can NBC place the sex crimes of "Law & Order: SVU" in the 9 p.m. hour on weekends? Will Mr. Leno cannibalize the audience that might normally have tuned in to Conan O'Brien, who is set to take over "The Tonight Show" in late May? Can he bring in a prime-time audience, rather than just a good one for the late-night time slot? Will audiences really tune in for an hourlong variety show, a half-hour local news break, and two more hours of variety programs, one of which features a still-untested Jimmy Fallon?
Some buyers aren't convinced the nation wants comedy in the later part of the evening. "I don't know if comedy necessarily works at 10. There hasn't been anything on that isn't a drama or reality show or a news show since 1993," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at MPG. The program he was referring to was "Flying Blind," a comedy that aired in 1992 on Sunday nights on Fox that featured a young Tea Leoni. That show lasted a season.