At 10 p.m., Jay Leno and the Newsmakers

NBC Starts Floating Ideas, Like One Guest a Night

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NEW YORK ( -- How well can Jay Leno summon the questioning visage of David Frost and the easy bonhomie of Larry King? Those are two traits NBC might like him to put to good use on his new 10 p.m. fall show, which is beginning to take shape as a program that features newsmakers and politicians, rather than the parade of celebrities that usually line up to sit on Mr. Leno's couch.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared Tuesday evening on 'Tonight.'
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared Tuesday evening on 'Tonight.' Credit: NBC
A show that reflects the tone and issues of the day is an idea NBC has begun to float to advertisers, said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna. "The advantage of doing a show like that every day is you can be current," he said. NBC isn't making promises about the look and feel of the program yet, he said, but executives are describing a talk show with a monologue and skits, and at least broaching the concept of "only one guest a night," he added.

A spokesman for NBC's late-night programs said the network declined to comment.

No matter what its format, NBC is taking a risk with Mr. Leno's new program. For one thing, even the network expects it will not bring in the ratings of a 10 p.m. scripted drama that it will likely face on rival CBS (of course, the talk show will be cheaper to produce).

To get around some of these issues, a newsy bent could help. "You have to get a broader audience than you have at late night, and there are probably some things you could do in late night that you really cannot do at 10 p.m.," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. Giving the show a newsy bent "is something that definitely should be considered," she said.

There's some initial evidence that the idea could bring rewards. President Barack Obama's appearance on Thursday night's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" generated the program's best ratings since 2005, according to both NBC and preliminary figures from Nielsen Media Research. Of course, Mr. Obama tends to generate ratings no matter what program hosts him. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appeared Tuesday evening on "Tonight."

Relying more on such luminaries could also help NBC differentiate between Mr. Leno's new program and Mr. O'Brien's version of "Tonight." Both shows will be based in the Los Angeles vicinity, meaning that the booking staffs of each program could go up against each other trying to nab the hot celebrity of the moment.

NBC is banking on Mr. Leno to not only help it mount a cheaper but audience-grabbing alternative to scripted fare, but to drive viewers to the local newscasts put on by its local affiliates and owned-and-operated stations. "If it gets somewhere between how he was doing on the 'Tonight Show' and how the 10 p.m. dramas are doing, they probably will be happy with that," Mr. Sternberg said.

Politics can't be the soul of the new show, buyers argue, because they expect it to include familiar bits such as Mr. Leno's man-on-the-street "Jaywalking" sketches. "I just don't see a nonstop string of politicians, because there isn't enough interest in that" on a broad-audience program, Mr. Sternberg said.

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