In Depth

NBC Went to Oprah Before Leno for Prime Time

Before deciding to put Jay Leno in prime time, NBC offered its 8 p.m. timeslot to Oprah Winfrey.

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said that the notion of Oprah having a nightly show in prime time wasn’t a new idea.

NBC talked to Ms. Winfrey about two years ago, Mr. Zucker said. She passed but said she might have considered it earlier in her career, he said. NBC also discussed an 8 p.m. show with David Letterman when the “Late Show” host’s contract was coming up at CBS.

Mr. Zucker added that at a meeting with affiliates on Wednesday, he plans to share a memo from 1981 in which research was done on moving the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson to 10 p.m.

Mr. Zucker said the time is right now for Mr. Leno’s move into prime time.

The most popular show at 10 p.m. now is TiVo, Mr. Zucker said. NBC and ABC average less than a 2 rating among adults 18- to 49 in the time period year round; CBS averages somewhat more than a 2.

“The Tonight Show” has often beat NBC’s 10 p.m. shows, especially with reruns and Mr. Leno is expected to be doing original shows 46 weeks a year.

For his part, Mr. Leno doesn’t seem to be feeling much pressure about the move to prime time.

At a gathering of reporters before an NBC comedy performance for ad buyers Tuesday night, Mr. Leno (who taped two episodes of the “Today” show Tuesday) said, “I think it will be fun to try something new.”

He added “it is a risk… everything’s a risk.”

And Mr. Leno, who famously says he’s never spent any of the money he’s made from television, says he wasn’t overly concerned if the show didn’t work.

“If it collapses, my world doesn’t collapse.”

Mr. Leno thinks that from a business perspective, the idea is sound. After rejecting a proposal to do an 8 p.m. show, he asked NBC to do research to see if a 10 p.m. show would work.

“Ten is the new 11:30,” Mr. Leno said, noting that when he was young people his age routinely stayed up till 1 or 2 in the morning.

The show will be more of a comedy show than a talk show, Mr. Leno said. Like the “Tonight Show,” it will open with a monologue that will last 11 to 14 minutes.

Because affiliates need a lead-in to their late local news, Mr. Leno said he is devising new comedy bits for the end of his prime time show that will keep viewers tuned in.

The time slot will give Mr. Leno the first shot at making jokes about the day’s events.

“TV seems to be about immediacy now,” he said.

Some details about the show haven’t been worked out. Mr. Leno said he doesn’t know what the set will look like. It will be shot on a much larger stage that the “Tonight Show” is.

He also wasn’t sure if there would be a musical guest every night.

While NBC is saying that Mr. Leno’s show will be very advertisers friendly, the star said that aspect hadn’t been worked out. While there will likely be some live commercials, he wasn’t expecting the program to be overtly commercial.

Mr. Leno said he didn’t push NBC on his salary for doing the show or insist on ownership rights.

“These are cheap bastards,” he said about NBC with a smile.

Being a boss would only create new headaches, said the host, who likes his business simple.

“Tell jokes, Get check,” he summarized.

After being No. 1 in late night for years, in some ways Mr. Leno said he looked forward to having a “certain underdog appeal” as he takes on prime time.

“I don’t expect to blow the doors off of ‘CSI,’ he said, especially at the beginning. “We won’t beat them in the straight aways. Maybe we’ll catch them on the corners.”

Not being in first place will also drive him to work harder, and hard work has always been a successful formula for Mr. Leno. He said he’s seen his rivals at ballgames on TV while he was busy writing jokes and knew that meant they wouldn’t have a good monologue the following night.

“You go from being a comedian to a humorist to a satirist to out of show business,” he said. “I’m a huge believer in low self esteem . . . I work harder. That has always worked for me.”

While rival networks have said hey see opportunity for higher ratings with NBC abandoning scripted shows in the time period, Mr. Leno is confident about his new venture and Mr. Zucker said the show would be judged on how it performs on a 52-week basis no matter how it comes out of the gate.

“We’re completely committed to this,” Mr. Zucker said.

Mr. Leno appeared to be more of a realist.

“If it’s not working, kick my ass out,” he said.

(Editor: Baumann)