Jay Leno, NBC's Mr. Prime Time? NBC announced Tuesday that Jay Leno will move to prime time. "The Tonight Show" host will get a program five nights a week at 10 eastern time. The network is giving up on programming dramas in that time slot. That decision speaks volumes about Leno and NBC.
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Jay Leno, NBC's Mr. Prime Time?

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Jay Leno, NBC's Mr. Prime Time?

Jay Leno, NBC's Mr. Prime Time?

Jay Leno, NBC's Mr. Prime Time?

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NBC announced Tuesday that Jay Leno will move to prime time. "The Tonight Show" host will get a program five nights a week at 10 eastern time. The network is giving up on programming dramas in that time slot. That decision speaks volumes about Leno and NBC.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NBC's Jay Leno will have a new gig next year, as he told his "Tonight Show" audience.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Tonight Show")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show"): As you may have heard, we're going to be going on at 10 p.m.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Mr. LENO: Well, you know, it's interesting. A lot of people were shocked when they heard. Not that I was moving to primetime, that NBC still had a primetime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: NBC surprised the television world yesterday by announcing that Leno will host a show five nights a week. The network is giving up on programming dramas in that time slot. NPR's Kim Masters reports that the decision speaks volumes about Leno and NBC.

KIM MASTERS: Even Leno seems surprised to find himself launching this unprecedented new show. That came through in an interview yesterday with NBC's Brian Williams.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Mr. LENO: We'd like to get more newsmakers and people like yourself on more often, on a regular basis, and make it a timely, up-to-date, late-night show.

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Anchor and Managing Editor, "NBC Nightly News"): Now, it was said...

Mr. LENO: A primetime show.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's right, primetime show. Everybody's making that slip.

MASTERS: For months now, the accepted wisdom in the TV business has been that Jay Leno would leave NBC when he hands over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien in May. Leno joked about his supposed departure in yesterday's interview.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Mr. LENO: Most of those rumors were started by a disgruntled employee, namely me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: So, why is Leno staying put? A former associate says the network likely enticed him by pointing out that he's one of the iconic personalities associated with the network, that he'd be breaking ground. Jay hates change, this executive said. And as Leno himself pointed out yesterday, he's still on his first wife. Leno plans to keep certain elements of "The Tonight Show," like the opening monologue. But industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt says one thing won't remain the same.

Mr. LARRY GERBRANDT (Founder and Principal, Media Valuation Partners): He doesn't have nearly the kind of competition as he will at the 10 o'clock time period.

MASTERS: An executive at rival CBS said the network is happy to pit its strong dramas against Leno. But Leno says he's prepared for that.

Mr. LENO: We're not going to beat shows like "CSI Miami" and other shows like that. Those shows are on original programming 22 weeks a year. We're going to be on 46 to 48 weeks a year, original programming.

MASTERS: And the bar for Leno's show won't be that high when it comes to ratings. NBC has been flailing at 10 p.m. this fall, as veteran television executive Fred Silverman points out.

Mr. FRED SILVERMAN (Television Executive and Producer): They have virtually nothing. They've got basically one show left that's doing any kind of business and that's "Law & Order: SVU."

MASTERS: Silverman says NBC can put on Leno five nights a week for a fraction of the cost of making five expensive dramas. But Larry Gerbrandt points out that this experiment carries risk.

Mr. GERBRANDT: You're really putting all your eggs in one basket. And if it doesn't work, you've got an entire basket of broken eggs.

MASTERS: What's startling to many industry professionals is that NBC, once the home of upscale programs like "Hill Street Blues" and "E.R.," is giving up on programming dramas at 10 p.m. But the broadcast networks have been facing fragmenting audiences distracted by video games and the Internet. And cable channels have drained away viewers who watch their original shows like "The Closer." Now the economy has advertising revenues in freefall, so NBC's plan only seems to be the latest sign of a coming transformation for the broadcast business. Kim Masters, NPR News.

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