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Guest Commentary: Late Shift Could Help NBC Keep Leno and O’Brien

In 2004, when NBC announced the impending retirement of Jay Leno, 2009 seemed like it was light-years away. Some scoffed at the five-year plan, in which Leno would gracefully and willingly cede the “Tonight Show” throne to rightful heir Conan O’Brien.

After all, O’Brien had loyally navigated the wee-hours waters, building up a sizable audience and a rich comic legacy. Surely by 2009 Leno would tire of the grueling nightly routine, and NBC would avoid a repeat of the unseemly “Late Shift” battle of 1992.

Three years later, if many press accounts are to be believed, NBC’s neat little plan has gone awry. Leno is still a time-slot leader, and at 57 his legendary energy shows no sign of flagging. Some NBC affiliates and advertisers are skittish about losing a proven late-night winner. Rumors abound that some NBC execs may be having second thoughts.

No one expects Leno to fade quietly into the sunset, and the real possibility exists that a post-“Tonight” Leno could surface on a competing network.

But if NBC caves in and keeps Leno under the current format, O’Brien would almost certainly walk, with a huge buyout ($40 million) in his wallet. Which begs the question, why should NBC have to lose either of them?

For more than five decades, NBC has ended prime time at 11 p.m., with late-night programming starting a few minutes later (11:15 until the mid-’60s, 11:30 or 11:35 ever since).

Yet, during that period, Americans’ schedules and lifestyles have changed, as evidenced by declining ratings for 11 p.m. local newscasts and a gradual increase in viewers for the relatively new 10 p.m. newscasts, usually on Fox or independent stations.

I think 2009 should be the time for a change of drastic proportions. NBC should give its affiliates the opportunity to air their local newscasts at 10 p.m., followed immediately by a nightly Leno show at 10:35 and O’Brien at 11:35. Some adjustments may be necessary with show titles and locales (O’Brien’s deal specifically states he will get “The Tonight Show”), but surely that could be worked out. And there’s two years to get it done.

The advantages would be immediate and obvious. Affiliates move their late news to a time when more viewers are available and willing to watch, and NBC’s two major late-night talents stay with the network, with a one-hour headstart on competitors’ late-night programming. Plus, a combination of local news and Leno would surely outperform NBC’s recent and current fare at 10 p.m., such as “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “The Black Donnellys” and the aging “Law & Order” variations.

Over the years, some NBC affiliates have expressed interest in an earlier start time for local news, but they were quickly shot down, in part due to a strong prime-time schedule. Sadly, that is no longer the case. In 2007, NBC’s primary strengths are mornings and late night. NBC has done a terrific job expanding its morning franchise, lengthening “Today” to three hours, and soon to four. Why can’t the same be done for its late-night powerhouses, moving start times ahead an hour? Drowsy viewers, already disenchanted by late pro football games and World Series baseball games, would surely cheer.

Some opposition would come from East Coast affiliates with strong 11 p.m. news numbers, or Central time zone stations where a 9 p.m. late news or a 9:35 Leno show might seem early.

I would hope a plan could be adopted giving stations some flexibility, perhaps offering stations the option of running Leno at 10 p.m. (9 central), which could still be a strong prime-time performer, and probably an improved news lead-in.

As for a 9 p.m. newscast, Chicago’s WGN seems to have carved out a successful niche for many years now.

There also might be concern that NBC’s prime-time schedule of original series would be cut from three hours to two. However, this hasn’t seemed to hamper the growth of Fox, which apparently has no plans to encroach on its stations’ 10 p.m. time slots.

Even Leno himself might question a 10:35 p.m. (or earlier) start against competing network prime-time programming. After all, it can be daunting to take on the second half of a “Grey’s Anatomy” or the final minutes of a network movie premiere. But has Leno ever backed down from a challenge before? After all, this is the guy that David Letterman was supposed to annihilate.

Finally, as in all proposed changes, traditionalists would balk. This would upset the applecart at some strong NBC affiliates, including O&Os. What about “Saturday Night Live”? Sunday Night Football? And with NBC reportedly wooing Jon Stewart for the 12:35 slot, why all the fuss over Leno anyway?

I say, hang on to your valued assets, respond to your viewers’ changing lifestyles and take NBC into the 21st century with proven winners.

David Carroll is news anchor for Sarkes Tarzian-owned NBC affiliate WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Comments (39)

Wanda Watkins:

In Birmingham Alabama that is the schedule already. Local news at 10pm and 10:30 Tonight with Leno followed by Conan. I watch Letterman myself because I find him funnier and he isn't a sell out like Leno. I like Conan but like Craig Ferguson more....he has the Sow of Time.
If David Letterman was ogge enough for Johnny Carson he's good enough for me.

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