MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- By now, Jay Leno must be used to being "Plan B."
He wasn't NBC's original choice to take over "The Tonight Show." And based on the first three weeks of the new season -- which for the new "Jay Leno Show" plays like the tale of two seasons -- he seems to be a backup plan for many viewers as well.
Week one was highly hyped, with a Time magazine cover story and the timely scheduling of Kanye West, who had stolen the mic -- and the moment -- from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards and became part of the country's conversation about uncivil behavior.
"Leno" averaged more than 11.8 million viewers that first week and a 7.6/13 household rating and share as well as a 3.4/10 rating and share in the ad-centric adult 18-49 demographic. Compared to the commensurate week last year "Leno" leaped ahead by 122% in total viewers and 97% in the demo.
Weeks two and three, however, viewers shifted to "Plan A" -- otherwise known as the new fall season, as returning serialized soaps such as ABC's "Private Practice" were joined by fresh freshman concepts such as CBS's "The Good Wife."
So by week three, the talk show's adult demographic dropped by half, to a 1.7/5. Compared to last fall's week three on NBC, the show's demo ratings were 37% lower -- and this is in comparison to a lineup that finished fourth last year, which is one of the reasons NBC went to plan B in the first place.
Most notable from weeks one to three were the loss of female viewers, who gravitate in droves to 10 p.m. dramas. Men, meanwhile, seem more comfortable with guys' guy Jay (or really don't want to watch ABC's "Eastwick"), leading to a relative rarity in prime time -- a male/female split of 46/54 in the demo over three weeks, compared to a 39/61 for NBC's first three weeks of last year.
And despite Jay seeming old-school, especially compared to the post-modern model of a talk show host such as Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and "Tonight Show" successor Conan O'Brien, Jay's week three 54% retention of adults 18-34 was only slightly better than the 49% of adults 35-64 who tuned in.
As with all shows, three weeks do not a season make. But the trend so far is clear: When schedules accommodate "Plan A" viewing, "Leno" lags. Yet the very nature of what makes these "Plan A" shows so audience addicting -- cliffhanging drama -- makes them nearly negligible once the schedule is replete with repeats.
This will create an opportunity for "Leno," which should have original episodes about 46 weeks this year, or twice as many weeks for many 10 p.m. dramas. But for now, "Leno" usually finishes third on most nights.
|See how all the shows did in the ratings.|
But Jay, and NBC, shouldn't wait for repeats. Instead "Leno" needs to become the must-go media option for those in pop culture, politics and even in everyday life who have news, or need to defend themselves, just as Kanye West did. But typifying the approach so far, Kanye's appearance was serendipitous scheduling, not the hastily arranged appearance that will give "Leno" the alacrity needed to make it water-cooler worthy.
In other words, however improbable (OK, impossible), Leno's bookers should aspire for the biggest "get" -- David Letterman.
Instead, of course, "Letterman" has become the talk show everyone's talking about, as he seems to be surviving his sex scandal and even surpassed "The Jay Leno Show" on Monday, despite late night having fewer viewers available than Leno's prime-time perch.
And indeed, it may get even tougher, as the Los Angeles Times reports that ABC and CBS are discouraging their A-list talent from sitting in the chair next to Jay. But as opposed to this being a derailer, that should free up "Leno" to book a broader variety of guests and get away from tired TV stars plugging projects.
What can't be directly discerned is the cost/benefit ratio for NBC, as "Leno" production costs and ad revenue aren't public. But putting aside the green eyeshades, as well as any rose-colored glasses worn during week one of "Leno," the show needs to show the same doggedness Jay himself showed when he beat out David Letterman.
"Jay uses the tortoise and the hare metaphor a lot," reflects the New York Times' Bill Carter, who figuratively and literally wrote the book ("The Late Shift") on late night TV. But what may have worked for late night may be harder in prime time. So whether a tortoise or a "Plan B," Jay Leno better have his A game, as his show needs to become more aggressive against ABC's and CBS's dramas in order to better compete in prime time, as well as drive demos into NBC affiliates' local news.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Friday: Think people are paranoid about political conspiracies now? Watch "The Manchurian Candidate" on TCM, which only could have been made during the overheated Cold War era.
Saturday: Homecoming at home: It's a big week for homecoming, and college football, so switch between two prime-time college football games, as Michigan plays Iowa on ABC and Florida takes on LSU on CBS.
Sunday: Should a Nobel Peace Prize president decide to send more troops to Afghanistan? CBS's "60 Minutes" adds to the debate with a Scott Pelley piece about counterinsurgency.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Cable news networks in opinion overload as the left and the right reacts to Nobel Laureate Barack Obama.
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.