Leno: The new king of prime time

By giving Jay Leno its prized 10pm slot, NBC is recognising the power of a brilliant comic – and the demise of US TV drama

The American entertainment industry is adjusting its collective television set to the startling news from the NBC network that Jay Leno, who is to end his reign as host of The Tonight Show in less than six months time, has been given a new talk show at the much earlier primetime hour of 10pm.

For no less than 15 years, Leno has been the host of Tonight, arguably the most precious franchise on US network television. He replaced Johnny Carson amid enormous ceremony in 1993. Fans were told almost five years ago that come 2009, he would be replaced by Conan O'Brien, who has a show after Leno's. He will still do so, starting the night of 1 June.

Then NBC announced yesterday that Leno, 58, is not leaving the network after all. Instead, they are giving him a whole new talk show, every week night before The Tonight Show goes out at 11.30pm.

This is not just a matter of schedule fiddling. The networks regularly shuffle programmes around to see how they can maximise ratings. Anything to stop the viewers getting too complacent about what they expect to see. But to give a whole primetime hour to one show – inthis case, to one person really – every weekday night is something not seen for a very long time. It signals, in fact, a whole new programming strategy that may thrill the older aficionados of Leno but will appal fans of drama and all those who contribute to its creation, including actors, agents, writers and designers.

Until now, the 10pm hour on NBC as well as on its main competitors – ABC and CBS – was precisely for drama. Shows that were conceived for this "adult" portion of primetime have over the years included the likes of ER, Hill Street Blues, LA Law and Law & Order and its spin-offs. All were made by NBC and all became legendary shows that were exported around the world.

The network may have offered the prized slot to Leno because it, like everyone else, had heard the rumours that he was considering offers from rivals, including ABC and Fox. But most observers saw the announcement as being much more about money, and saving it.

The network, owned by General Electric, is feeling the economic downturn as keenly as any media company. While the new contract with Leno is believed to be at least as generous as the one he has now, having him command the schedule five nights a week will save NBC a considerable chest of money. Every hour of new drama generally costs in the region of $5m to produce. Indeed, on Monday Jeffrey Zucker, the CEO of NBC Universal, told a media conference in New York that his network was considering ending its commitment to producing proprietary programming for all seven days of the week. Programme-making has become too expensive.

There is also the reality that drama at 10pm has not been faring as well as it used to. On top of all the other factors eroding the ratings for the main networks, including competition from the cable and the internet, research shows that Americans at that hour are increasingly watching programmes from earlier in the night they have saved on digital recording devices.

A glimpse at the ER numbers tells the story to some degree. Where once the medical drama captured an audience in the US of nearly 25 million, it now draws 10 million or fewer.

Much newer shows given the 10pm slot at NBC have not done well either, especially in this latest autumn season. The network had great hopes of a new Christian Slater vehicle, My Own Worst Enemy, as well as a second season of Lipstick Jungle, a pale and barely gripping sequel to Sex and the City. Both nosedived. Both shows have been cancelled for good, as has ER.

As NBC unveiled its shell-game manoeuvres there was no word from Leno himself. Nor did we hear from O'Brien who had thought that come June he would at last no longer be the man following Leno. Instead that is exactly what he will be doing again. But at least, it eliminates the potentially more damaging prospect of Leno popping up on a different network to compete directly against him.

Leno, one assumes, is altogether content. His main fan base, after all, was, like him, getting greyer and the ordeal of waiting for his show to begin was getting all the more intolerable. Indeed, the showcasing of Leno at 10pm – when the overall television audience is generally 50 per cent greater than at 11.30 – may signal a shift in the bedtime habits of America generally.

Political campaign managers will also not be displeased with the earlier time slot. The Tonight Show and its main competition over on CBS, the Late Show with David Letterman, have become an obligatory stop for political candidates in recent years, including Barack Obama and John McCain.

Among politicians who went on Leno to declare their candidacies are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson. Maybe the latter would have fared better if more people had been awake at the time.

Jay Leno: In his own words

* "Bush is smart. I don't think that Bush will ever be impeached, 'cos unlike Clinton, Reagan, or even his father, George W is immune from scandal. Because, if George W testifies that he had no idea what was going on, wouldn't you believe him?"

* "According to New York publishers, Bill Clinton will get more money for his book than Hillary Clinton got for hers. Well, duh. At least his book has some sex in it."

* "Here's something to think about: How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?"

* "The reason there are two senators for each state is so that one can be the designated driver."

* "More coming out about Saddam Hussein. We now know he takes Viagra and he has as many as six mistresses. No wonder Congress is reluctant to take action against this guy – he's one of their own."

* "Bush reiterated his stand to conservatives opposing his decision on stem cell research. He said today he believes life begins at conception and ends at execution."