NBC's New 10 p.m. Lineup Provisional, but Already an Improvement

Late Night's Leno vs. O'Brien Challenge Is Tougher

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Ad buyers aren't counting on the new 10 p.m. lineup that NBC announced today to last into next fall, but they say it's already an upgrade over Jay Leno on prime time.

Not Leno: NBC will replace 'Leno' with various shows, including new episodes of 'Law & Order: SVU' on Wednesdays.
Not Leno: NBC will replace 'Leno' with various shows, including new episodes of 'Law & Order: SVU' on Wednesdays. Credit: NBC
As NBC prepares to return Jay Leno to late night, the network said it will replace his 10 p.m. show with new episodes of "Law & Order" on Mondays; new drama "Parenthood" on Tuesdays; new episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" on Wednesdays; the new Jerry Seinfeld-produced game show "The Marriage Ref" as part of its Thursday comedy lineup; and a broadcast of the news program "Dateline" on Fridays.

Revelation of the new lineup shows NBC trying to quickly put the controversy of "The Jay Leno Show" behind it. NBC said many of the programs would debut in early March, following its coverage of the Winter Olympics.

Ad buyers are under no illusion that the new 10 p.m. lineup will be permanent. "In prime time, they are going to have to scramble a little bit to put some programming in there," said Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's Group M. "I'm sure their development slate didn't assume this scenario."

Even so, most advertisers will look at the replacement selections "as an upgrade," Mr. Scanzoni said, because they have been expecting relatively low ratings for audiences between 18 and 49 during Mr. Leno's 10 p.m. hour.

Tackling the late-night question
Still at issue for the network is what to do with its late-night lineup. While several press reports have suggested current "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien will ultimately leave NBC and that Mr. Leno will resume hosting duties on an 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show," no official announcement to that effect has been made. The network has said it hopes to have Mr. Leno host a half-hour program at 11:35 p.m., have Mr. O'Brien host "Tonight" at 12:05 a.m. and have Jimmy Fallon host "Late Night" at 1:05 a.m.

Even if NBC is able to mount a Jay Leno-led "Tonight Show," a move that would likely bring in the most ratings for its first late-night hour, the network's challenges are far from over, ad buyers suggested.

"I think it's a difficult situation for NBC," said Kris Magel, exec VP-director, national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative. "They're going to lose one of their major late-night talents and they don't have a choice. There is no room for both at this point."

And the two stars represent very different strategies, Mr. Magel added. Returning Mr. Leno to the "Tonight Show" essentially means accepting an older audience at 11:35 p.m. and a more-limited lifespan to the show, he said. Mr. O'Brien has a smaller but younger audience -- and offers the hope that he can grow that audience over the years.

"The Conan plan has the longer lifespan of the two, but is definitely the riskier choice in the short term," Mr. Magel said. "And with either choice, their decision to move Jay into prime time has lost a chunk of audience to Letterman that might not ever return."

NBC's overall schedule is likely to be in flux until the fall. Executives earlier this week said they were mounting an ambitious development slate and would have more programming in the pipeline than the network has had in several years.

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