His prime-time debut is a few months away but many are already doubting whether audiences will tune in (or even TiVo) his talk show at 10. Kim Masters says the joke may be on the other networks.
Jeff Zucker has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the big-media world. And the NBC Universal chief executive’s decision to schedule a Jay Leno talk show five nights a week at 10 p.m. did nothing to change that.
The conventional wisdom was that in scheduling Leno for an hour in prime-time five days a week beginning in September, NBC was giving up beachfront real-estate to put up a rooming house, as one industry veteran put it. The head of one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies agreed, saying, "It's really a lesson in how to kill a brand." And last December, CBS President Les Moonves publicly kicked sand in Zucker’s face at the UBS media conference in New York, declaring, "I would bet anyone who would like to bet that CSI: Miami will beat Jay by a lot. Remember: by a lot!"
“If you want to give the benefit of the doubt to Zucker, you see him dealing with adversity rather than being in denial.”
That sounds like a setup for what is known as a pyrrhic victory. For one thing, any CSI episode costs seven figures, which is more than a whole lotta Lenos. Consequently, CBS can win the ratings battle while still losing the financial war. But there’s far more at stake here for the big broadcast networks than winning a simple skirmish over ratings points and ad rates on any given night.
What if TV's 10 p.m. timeslot is simply doomed? That seems to be the implication of a study that TiVo Inc. released last week. A majority of DVR users—nearly 60 percent, by TiVo's account—record programs that air on television at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.—no surprise there. Then they watch those shows later the same night. But in a development that has to alarm the networks, they’re not recording shows that air at 10 p.m. Instead, they are simply ignoring them.
“The data lines up with common sense,” says TiVo executive Todd Juenger. Which is this: You come home from work and settle down in front of the television after you’ve had dinner or put your kids to bed. By the time you finish the 9 o'clock show that you held, maybe it’s 10:20. And at that point, you don’t start watching another show. Even if you record a 10 o'clock show to watch later, the chances are you won't watch it. Shows that stick around in your DVR for more than a day are not likely to be watched, ever.
Juenger doesn’t want to overstate the meaning of the study. He says he believes 10 p.m. shows can still garner healthy audiences, though smaller than those for 9 p.m. shows. James McQuivey of Forrester Research adds that DVRs are sonly in about 30 percent of American homes and their penetration may not grow as quickly as many analysts originally expected.
Kelly Kahl, head of scheduling at CBS, says digital recorders, in effect, create another competitor. "What you have essentially is another network at 10—the DVR network,” he says.
But a top executive at one network acknowledges it’s been a long time since any network had a big hit at 10 p.m.—a point underscored when ER recently aired its last episode. "You look across 10 o'clock, it is wide spanking open,” he says. And that hole is likely to be hard—and expensive—to fill. “If you want to give the benefit of the doubt to Zucker,” McQuivey says, “you see him dealing with adversity rather than being in denial.”
NBC would not acknowledge that Leno at 10 p.m. is anything but a strong play. Zucker has only just rammed Leno down the throat of WDHD, the Boston affiliate that revolted at the prospect of airing what seems likely to be a poor lead-in to its nightly newscast. But many well-placed Hollywood sources say NBC gave Leno the show out of weakness: in part to hold on to a longtime team player and in part because the network just couldn’t come up with a hit.
How ironic would it be if Leno actually had the kind of timeliness—at least on some nights—that would make him appointment, TiVo-proof viewing? “When everything else is in reruns, we’ll be topical,” he told GQ this month. “We’ll be talking about what’s going on right now. And that might help us win, and that might help us be successful.” Let him snare an interview with pilot Sully Sullenberger, the captain of a pirated ship, or the president of the United States and it could happen. That would be must-see TV at last.
Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.