Network TV's Future May Not Be So Bare-Bones After All

But If Programming Like NBC's 10 p.m. "Leno" Isn't the Answer, What Is?

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LAS VEGAS ( -- It seems consumers, advertisers and especially network TV affiliates still expect big things, not bare bones, from prime-time TV.

From the get-go, affiliates have eyed the 'Leno' show warily.
From the get-go, affiliates have eyed the 'Leno' show warily. Credit: NBC
Amid a slew of speculation yesterday and today that NBC might cancel its 10 p.m. "The Jay Leno Show," move Mr. Leno back to his 11:35 p.m. roost and bump "The Tonight Show" to just after midnight, NBC didn't deny any of it, with network spokespeople simply saying that they had "no announcements" to make at present.

Free over-the-air TV, it appears to turn out, still hinges on the satisfaction of local affiliates and owned-and-operated stations. And those outlets have had a terrible year, particularly with the troubles of U.S. automakers, some of the stations' biggest advertisers. TV stations were expected to end 2009 with lower-than-expected revenue of $15.6 billion, a 22.4% decline from 2008, according to BIA/Kelsey, an adviser to local media companies. From the get-go, affiliates have eyed the "Leno" show warily, with NBC's Boston affiliate initially saying it wouldn't run the program before backing down.

The network never promised big ratings numbers for "Jay Leno" at 10 p.m., of course; the idea was that the new, earlier Leno show would cost less to produce than regular scripted fare, giving NBC a winning economic proposition. But the affiliates count on 10 p.m. shows to build audiences for their crucial 11 p.m. local newscasts -- and many said "The Jay Leno Show" wound up hurting them more than they could bear.

"The move of Leno to 10 p.m. was worth trying, but I think it's clear the only thing that can succeed in prime-time television is a great series," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.

So what now for network TV?
While NBC's gambit seems to have failed, there's still the problem of readying TV for a future in which consumers carry portable screens with them and watch their favorite pieces of entertainment as they wish, not at specified times when advertisers can really lock them in.

Audiences are dwindling and separating; programming costs are extravagant; the syndication market isn't as robust as it once was. In the past few years, prominent soap operas have been canceled; at least 10 different talk-show hosts now hold forth in late night across broadcast and cable; and the success rate of launching a new drama or comedy in prime time is 25% at best. If NBC couldn't make a show starring arguably the best-known personality on network TV work, who can?

"This potential move signals to the affiliates that they take their position seriously; it shows the advertisers that they are willing to admit their mistake and are taking steps to improve their product; and it signals to the viewer that they care about their quality," said Donald Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at MPG. "But the whole affair mainly shows that they see an industry in flux and that they were prepared to take some unconventional risks, even if it doesn't work out."

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