Despite a new prime-time perch and a larger audience, NBC comedian Jay Leno is fishing for guests from a substantially smaller pool of talent.
Rival networks ABC and CBS are discouraging their stars from appearing on the prime-time talk show. They are determined not to let Leno's 10 p.m. program undercut viewership of their costly dramas when they are trying to build audiences at the start of the TV season.
The boycott highlights an unintended consequence of NBC's decision to move the veteran late-night comedian into prime time: making it harder to book some TV stars whose appearances could boost Leno's ratings.
Leno did not face a similar snub when he was hosting "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," at 11:35 p.m. Nor has his successor, Conan O'Brien, who last week lined up Teri Hatcher from ABC's "Desperate Housewives."
But NBC's decision to shift Leno might have changed the rules of the guest game. "In prime time, the stakes are higher and you have to protect your flank," said one network executive who asked not to be identified to avoid inflaming hostilities among the broadcast networks.
Leno mentioned the boycott Tuesday when Julia Louis-Dreyfus became the first CBS actor to appear on his new show. The former NBC "Seinfeld" star now headlines the comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine," which airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS. Louis-Dreyfus acknowledged that she faced some resistance but wanted to honor her commitment because she and Leno were longtime friends.
"Yes, there was a little pressure, because as you know you are now on prime time and I'm on a different network," said Louis-Dreyfus, appearing a little uncomfortable with the topic.
Many in Hollywood have been openly rooting for the demise of Leno's new show. There has been considerable hand-wringing because the talk and comedy show has eliminated hundreds of jobs for writers and cast and crew members who might otherwise have been employed in the production of five one-hour series. Until this season, NBC had traditionally filled its 10 p.m. slot with marquee dramas such as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "ER."
In August, John Wells, the executive producer of such prominent NBC shows as "ER" and "The West Wing," put it this way: "We lost five hours' worth of time periods that have been known throughout the history of the network for putting some really terrific shows on."
"I wish NBC and Jay Leno well; personally, he's a very nice guy, but I hope he falls flat on his face and we get five dramas back," said Wells, who was recently elected president of the Writers Guild of America, West.
But there was little indication that writers and actors beyond those on ABC and CBS have been boycotting Leno's show. He has landed such well-known actors as Drew Barrymore, Vince Vaughn and Robin Williams. Other A-list performers, including Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson and Cameron Diaz, have appeared in skits.
Several other TV networks, particularly Fox and HBO, are encouraging their talent to appear as guests on Leno's show. Hugh Laurie, star of Fox's highly rated drama "House," appeared on Leno on Friday. One incentive to showcase Laurie, however, is that "House" is produced by NBC's production arm, Universal Media Studios.
HBO has generated considerable free publicity on NBC for its upcoming "Seinfeld" reunion on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Jerry Seinfeld was Leno's first guest on Sept. 14, Louis-Dreyfus discussed it this week, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" creator (and "Seinfeld" co-creator) Larry David is scheduled to make an appearance in October.
According to ratings firm Nielsen Co., on Tuesday night 6.6 million viewers watched Leno, a considerably smaller audience than tuned in during Leno's initial telecasts. Still, that's about 1.5 million more than had turned out for the comedian's 11:35 p.m. show.
NBC executives say they are satisfied with the show's ratings, which are about the same as those generated by NBC's 10 p.m. drama series when reruns are included.
The network said it wasn't concerned about the boycott and would not let it influence decisions about whom to book on Leno.
" 'The Jay Leno Show' has an open-door policy. We are always interested in having talent appear on the show regardless of studio affiliation," NBC said.