NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" will likely have some of the smallest ratings on broadcast TV's primetime this season. And yet it's probably the most important show of the year.
Mr. Leno symbolizes the new and heartbreaking reality of broadcast-network TV: Large numbers of viewers are moving from big, broad media venues to those that are more personalized, and often found online. That means NBC and its rivals may no longer be able to garner the audiences the allowed them to create hours and hours of dramas that cost tens of millions of dollars to produce each week. Mr. Leno's program may not be a huge hit on the order of "The Cosby Show," but it will cost NBC significantly less than it would to mount five new dramas whose success is far from guaranteed (even TV executives will tell you that 75% to 80% of new shows fail).
That's why his debut week is being watched so closely by the industry. If this gambit works, it could reshape the broadcast primetime model.
Mr. Leno has had his face plastered not only on phone booths and bus stops but also the cover of Time magazine, which declared him "The Future of Television." All this attention for a show that will likely lose in the ratings to CBS and ABC every night it's on. But the industry realizes that this program, coupled with the lower ambitions of the network behind it, could be the first sign that TV going forward will be decidedly less grand. In place of special effects, highly paid celebrities and cliffhanger plots, broadcast TV could become a venue for newsy shows that play off the headlines and live telecasts of important events for which folks have a yen to see as they happen, not hours or days later.
While Mr. Leno's program enjoyed a glitzy launch last week, reaching as many as 18 million viewers with its debut, the hoopla in fact means very little. It's the day-to-day ratings performance of Mr. Leno and crew against soon-to-launch original scripted network fare from ABC and CBS -- not to mention cable -- in the weeks to come that will determine whether his program is truly viable. "The Jay Leno Show" still faces weeks of scrutiny from media buyers and advertisers, many of whom expect to see the show secure a significantly smaller audience as the new TV season progresses.
"When it's up against 'The Mentalist,' 'Private Practice,' 'CSI: Miami,' 'CSI: New York,' you're going to see the audience decline," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of TV research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA.
NBC holds no illusion that last week's performance will be Mr. Leno's status quo. "It's great to launch this innovative new show with such strong initial sampling, but we realize this is just one night and that we're going to build our business in this time period with ratings that will level out over time," said Jeff Gaspin, chairman, NBC Universal Television Entertainment, in a statement. "Our focus is on delivering a great show and developing a consistent comedy-viewing habit at 10 p.m. over the long haul." NBC expects viewing of the show will likely ebb and flow on different days of the week, and has been selling "Jay Leno" to accommodate that dynamic.
Part of the interest in the show comes from fascination with the fortunes of NBC, the once-dominant Peacock network whose inability to replace star properties such as "Friends," "ER" and "Frasier" with more of the same has come just as audiences begin to flock to niche digital venues and use digital video recorders to watch TV in a new fashion that depends little on specific time and day.
In some ways, the network's reliance on Mr. Leno to put forward its new vision is distressing. After an initial stumble after taking over "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson in 1992, Mr. Leno developed into a late-night ratings champion. He edged out CBS rival David Letterman for years. Yet no one expects the affable comedian to trump his new competition: crime-and-punishment plots, not jokey riffs on the headlines; big-name celebrities in dramatic confrontations, not funny skits.
"Early sampling is destined to include an audience that's not 'the Jay Leno viewer' to see what all the hype is about. Debuting against token competition only increased that likelihood," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's MPG. "But non-Leno viewers are probably less likely to become converts -- his vanilla demeanor is well-known, so it's not like his dynamic presence will retain a truly new demographic once competitive programming counters it at 10."
Last week, Mr. Leno largely stuck to the formula that made "Tonight" a regular part of so many TV viewers' daily routines. After offering up a topical monologue, he chatted with some of the biggest names in entertainment, even devising a "gotcha" moment: an emotional conversation with the controversial Kanye West, fresh off his much-publicized stunt at MTV's VMA's. He gingerly felt his way through a new segment involving quick question-and-answer sessions with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, as well as Miley Cyrus. His first telecast reached a whopping 18.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen, then saw diminishing returns, notching about 11 million viewers on Tuesday, 13.4 million on Wednesday and 8.8 million on Thursday. Of those viewers, a sizable portion each night was over 55 years old.
There's little hope among ad buyers that the program will continue to reach those levels, said John Spiropoulos, senior VP-director of marketplace analytics at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. "What we're seeing is a bottoming-out probably earlier than we had anticipated," he said. "There are certain expectations you have to have for the tune-out, and this is surpassing those expectations. That should be concerning to NBC."
Buyers expect Mr. Leno's show to notch a 1.5 to a 2.0 share among audiences between the ages of 18 to 49, the demographic most coveted by advertisers. Those figures suggest Mr. Leno could win less of that particular demographic than some recent repeats of dramas on other networks. "You're approaching high-rated CW territory," said MediaVest's Mr. Spiropoulos. "The average prime-time 18 to 49 rating is somewhere around a 2.2 to a 2.3."
That's not to say Mr. Leno's program isn't attracting a broad range of marketers. The first week of the show garnered support from the likes of Verizon Wireless, MetLife, Nissan and Walmart. Ford Motor and McDonald's, meanwhile, have already devised ways to have their messages woven into the program. "While we're not in a position to comment on ratings or speculation, rest assured, as always, we will deliver a robust marketing mix that supports McDonald's U.S. business needs," said Anja Caroll, director-media, McDonald's USA. "That mix will include placements on all the major networks, including NBC."
WhiteWave Foods' Silk soy milk -- a small advertiser that likely would not invest heavily in any one program -- appeared last week due to a "scatter" purchase, or one made close to air time. The company said it was able "to secure a relatively efficient scatter CPM" (or price for reaching 1,000 viewers) in exchange for the chance to hit a broad consumer base, not just the women between 35 and 64 it expected to watch. "We will definitely consider Jay Leno and other relevant prime programming for future Silk buys," the company said.
Sprint will be a heavy advertiser in the show, but said the program is just one piece of its overall media mix. "The new Jay Leno Show is one of a broad range of programming that we use to communicate Sprint advertising. We don't have a specific strategy pertaining to that show," the telecommunications company said in a statement. "Certainly, we wish Jay all the best in building his new audience."
NBC's satisfaction with what could be a relatively low-rated show five times a week will likely fuel the long-running debate over the sustainability of once-undefeatable network TV in a new digital age. NBC "will likely be OK," Mr. Spiropoulos said, as the network seems to have determined it can manage the show profitably at a lower rating. But the move won't necessarily encourage advertisers who are watching TV audiences dwindle. "A lot of short-term smart decisions go into a long-term collapse, and that is what I think we are watching in pieces," he said.