Jay Leno knows how to cope with pressure. Which is good, because this week he'll face a public test the likes of which few media personalities have to endure.
When "The Jay Leno Show" premieres tonight in its 10 p.m. weeknight slot, a fair number of industry insiders -- and not just rival executives -- will be rooting for it to flop. That's mostly because, as part of NBC's controversial experiment to overturn 60 years of prime-time TV traditions with relatively cheap programming, Leno's new show is perceived as a potential job-wrecker. It's Exhibit A for the worried writers, directors and crew members, already buffeted by the recession and labor unrest, who now watch with alarm as executives begin to trim back on expensive scripted shows that have kept thousands employed for years.
As for those rival networks, they are vowing to crush Leno. But Hollywood executives and agents around town are also watching NBC's gambit with more than the typical competitive interest, as the industry continues to flail about in search of a viable new business model. Even a modest audience could deliver a huge payoff for fourth-ranked NBC, because the Leno show's expenses will amount to roughly one-third of the $300 million or so each network now spends each year to air originals and repeats of top scripted dramas during the 10 p.m. hour.
Now 59 and seemingly reinvigorated by his new challenge, the ever-amiable Leno, despite endless joking, seems to sense that the stakes could not be higher. "Television is dying," Leno told reporters during a conference call last week. "The advertising dollars are not there anymore" to support many high-cost scripted shows. While he said he remains "hopefully optimistic" about his odds, the host admits that the business is changing so rapidly, with audiences scattering in all directions, "I don't know what TV is anymore."
Leno has faced long odds before. In 1992, in a generational handoff that earned headlines around the world, the longtime stand-up comic took the reins of "Tonight" from the legendary Johnny Carson. Leno's early months were disastrous. He found himself struggling badly against David Letterman, who started a rival show at CBS. But within several years Leno emerged as the No. 1 host in late night and a perennial audience favorite.
But this time around, many analysts do not expect Leno to fare particularly well in the ratings against popular dramas such as "CSI: Miami" and "The Mentalist." But some point out that, thanks to its reduced costs, his new show could still be considered a success if it gathers an audience similar to that Leno enjoyed on "Tonight," about 5 million viewers per night, according to Nielsen Media Research. Many successful dramas draw numbers at least twice that and sometimes much more.
However, Leno's audience in late night was heavily weighted toward viewers 50 and older -- precisely the demographic that least interests big advertisers. NBC executives realize that Leno is likely to pull a grayer audience than the network is used to at that hour. But they figure that could still work out to the network's benefit because older viewers are much more likely than young people to stick around for the 11 p.m. newscast, the key driver of profits for local stations.
Shari Anne Brill, a TV analyst for New York ad giant Carat, predicts that Leno will come in "a safe third place" every night. He'll have a slightly better chance of success on Tuesdays, she added, when he will face off against two new dramas, ABC's "The Forgotten" and CBS' "The Good Wife." Otherwise, Leno will face a tough climb against series with entrenched fan bases.
Fans of "Tonight" should expect some big changes. Leno will largely abandon the traditional late-night host's desk and act as a kind of roving emcee on the car-themed set (the host is a dedicated auto and motorcycle nut), introducing the work of a team of comics who will go out in the field to tape pieces. Each show will have just one guest: Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled for the premiere, with director Michael Moore, whose new film "Capitalism: A Love Story" is about to open, booked for the second show. Leno says he intends to use musical acts sparingly, because viewers today have so many other outlets in which to hear their favorite bands.
But many familiar bits will remain. Leno will still do his monologue at the top of each show. And he'll close with his famous "Jaywalking" or headline segments, which will lead directly into local news.
NBC executives dismiss the notion that Leno's new gig is robbing the industry of jobs. "The Jay Leno Show" will have a staff of 22 writers who belong to the Writers Guild, which is far more than the typical drama, the network points out. The show will produce 230 episodes a year, as opposed to 22 episodes for the average drama, which means the writers will be employed longer. And the show will be locally produced in Burbank, thus preventing the flight of jobs to Vancouver, Toronto or one of the other out-of-state locations where many scripted series are now shot.
The network says it hasn't abandoned its commitment to scripted programming, and indeed has a full slate of new dramas and comedies in development. Those include a just-announced pilot for a new action series from producer Jerry Bruckheimer of "CSI" fame.
Marc Graboff, chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, said the Leno decision was driven by a multitude of factors, including a determination not to lose the host to a competitor as well as a desire to cut costs. "We're trying something different," he said in an interview.
Leno, for his part, says he's amused by all the worry and criticism from rivals and industry types. "It's trash talk," he told reporters in a conference call last week. "If you like playing the game, it's great fun."
The trash talk has been incessant since NBC announced late last year that it would hand Leno the 10 p.m. weeknight slot, a move that shocked and angered many of the industry professionals who create scripted programming. "It's wonderful that NBC has begun a public transformation into AM radio," writer-producer James Duff, who created the cop drama "The Closer" for TNT, said sarcastically at an industry panel in December. Peter Tolan, an outspoken TV veteran who produces "Rescue Me" for FX, attacked NBC at the TV press tour in Pasadena last month, saying: "They've clearly given up."
A big impetus behind such reactions is NBC's fabled history in the 10 p.m. hour, where in the past it delivered such acclaimed shows as "Hill Street Blues," "ER," "Law & Order" and "L.A. Law." Such series were instrumental during the 1980s and 1990s in defining NBC as the gold standard for sophisticated programming -- and, not coincidentally, as the No. 1 network for affluent and well-educated young viewers.
As regular viewers of "Tonight" know, Leno was not particularly happy about giving up his late-night perch, and still makes frequent wisecracks about his employer and its sagging fortunes. But as for his new gig, he's taking a decidedly philosophical approach and ignoring the considerable offstage noise.
"At this point, people know what you do," he said. "They either like you or they don't. All you can do is give it your best shot."