Jay Leno's Show Last-Ditch Gamble for NBC

"The Jay Leno Show" airs tonight amid hype and low expectations.

September 11, 2009, 4:19 PM

Sept. 14, 2009— -- The eyes of the entire television industry will be watching Jay Leno tonight when he debuts his new primetime comedy-variety show.

"The Jay Leno Show" is a huge gamble for NBC, which is turning over an entire hour of primetime entertainment, five days a week, for the next two years to one person.

The show will start with a fast opening sequence followed by Leno's monologue, NBC says. It will include comedy correspondents (D.L. Hughley will report on politics from Washington), a celebrity guest (Monday is Jerry Seinfeld) and a musical segment, which will sometimes feature multiple acts performing together (Jay-Z, Kanye West and Rihanna will perform Monday).

But NBC appears to be downplaying the risk of the new show's five-day primetime format by lowering the bar on everything from advertising rates to claiming victory ahead of tonight's 10 p.m. launch.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the network has settled for half of what they would usually get per commercial for a new episode of a drama.

"They knew that they couldn't command premium rates and that the buying community wanted something less expensive," Andy Donchin, director of media investments for Carat, told ABCNews.com. "We knew that the 10 o'clock hour was most likely not going to do as well as it did last year. I don't think NBC expects it to do as well, either."

"On the other hand, NBC is obviously saving a lot of money on Leno," Donchin continued. "We wanted a piece of that pie, too."

NBC has said it can still turn a profit with reduced ad rates because Leno is far less expensive to produce than a scripted show.

"We are beyond pleased with the ad performance for "The Jay Leno Show" and are eagerly awaiting the show's premiere on Monday," an NBC spokeswoman said in a statement to ABCNews.com.

Even Leno has tried to downplay the hype preceding the show.

"It's just a comedy show," he told critics during a conference call Tuesday.

Asked if he thinks his show is the future of television, as Time magazine suggested on its recent cover story on Leno, the comedian laughed.

"That's hilarious," he said. "That shows you the trouble we are in."

The "we" could be referring to No. 3 ranked NBC, which hasn't had a primetime hit in years. Rather than try to compete with the usual drama or news magazine show during the 10 to 11 p.m. time slot, NBC decided to try something completely different. Leno's comedy-variety show marks a major departure for a broadcast network -- and not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

"There is a resistance to what they've done, there's something un-American about surrendering a fight," James Hibberd, the senior online editor for The Hollywood Reporter, told ABCNews.com.

"Will he do better than other broadcasts in the 10 p.m. hour?" Hibberd continued. "He certainly won't. But that's not the way NBC is defining what constitutes a win in the game."

Hibberd said NBC will measure the show's success not by how it does against other dramas airing during the same hour, but by how well it does against Leno's own ratings when he hosted "The Tonight Show."

In Leno's 17-year run as "Tonight Show" host, he averaged 5 million viewers a night before handing the reigns over to Conan O'Brien in June.

"Comparing Jay Leno to a 22-week scripted show is not an apples-to-apples comparison," Mike Pilot, NBC's president of sales and marketing, told the Wall Street Journal.

While the network shied away from talking about the competition, Leno had no such fear. At a critics press tour last month, Leno said he expects to beat the drama programs -- in reruns.

"Do I expect to beat 'CSI: Miami'?" he asked. "No. Do I expect to beat them in repeats? Yeah. I don't expect to get them on the straights but catch them in the corners."

Besides its celebrity and musical guests, Leno's show will also include some of the comedian's signature comedy bits, like Jay Walking. He'll save newspaper headlines for the end of the show when he'll tell viewers to stay tuned for their local news.

A regular feature of the show will be the "Green Car Challenge," where celebrities race against each other in electric-powered Ford Focus cars on a specially built race track next to the studio.

"It's basically product placement for Ford," Hibberd said. "When you create segments for that reason, it almost never works."

But Donchin believe it can and will lead to more advertising "integration" within television programs.

"That's the direction the industry has to head in," he said. "You almost have to go back to the sponsorships of the '50s and '60s."

But don't compare Leno's new show to 1970s variety shows like "The Merv Griffin Show," "The Carol Burnett Show" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," which were immensely popular in primetime, Hibberd said.

"It's hard to use those to see how people are going to react in 2009," he said. "That was such a long time ago."

The closest thing to Leno's show on television now is Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," with its mix of comedy correspondents, joking with the audience and celebrity guests. But Leno is no Jon Stewart. And his fans don't want him to be, Hibberd said.

"Jay Leno has done well doing things very much the same," he said. "People don't think of going to him for edgy, digital shorts. It will be curious to see whether his sense of humor and the comedy people expect of him mesh with his correspondents' segments."

Hibberd expects big numbers for Leno during his debut week but said they will fall off by week two. Where the numbers will settle is anyone's guess.

Donchin said his clients give the show a "thumbs up."

Hibberd believes we'll have to wait and see.

"Anybody who says they know how it's going to do is full of it," he said. "There are too many variables in the mix, which is what makes it exciting."

And if the show fails to ignite NBC?

"To say that I have a clear backup plan would be exaggerating," Jeff Gaspin, the chairman of NBC, told the Wall Street Journal.

ABC News Radio's David Alpert contributed to this report

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