Inspire U: The Podcast

NBC always had small expectations for “The Jay Leno Show.” When it came to ratings, the network’s goal was modest because the show costs almost nothing to make compared to average 10pm dramas. But what’s going to happen to the great Jay Leno experiment now that the show isn’t even garnering the tiny audience NBC expected for it? Up against juggernauts “Monday Night Football” and “CSI,” Leno’s last two Monday night shows have dipped way below even their modest goal. To make things worse, other NBC shows and local affiliates are starting to complain that Leno’s unpopularity is dragging their own ratings down, too. The phenomenon even has a nickname: “The Leno Effect,” and it’s turning into a disaster for other NBC shows.

The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” for example, was building an audience and holding its own against David Letterman before Leno’s show debuted. But now with a poor lead-in, “Tonight’s” ratings are so dismal that Letterman beats Conan soundly night after night. Similarly, “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” which was a moderate success when it debuted last spring, can point directly to Leno for its own ratings dip. And even NBC staple and fan favorite “Law and Order” is suffering because Leno’s show stole its classic 10pm time slot. The producers of these shows are no doubt grumbling in-house, where Leno is probably not very popular right now. But making some very definite noise are NBC’s local affiliates around the country, who are finding that nobody is watching their post-Leno local news shows because by the time they air, the audience has long since changed the channel.

So what can be done to fix it? The show is already making modest tweaks, like moving its jaywalking segment closer to the beginning of the show, but in a story about NBC in this week’s New York Magazine, writer Mark Harris suggests some pretty drastic changes: switching Leno from five nights per week to three or four, or even flat-out canceling it (which would be very expensive for NBC, what with Leno’s contract). Or, what many are seeing as the nuclear option — canceling “The Jay Leno Show” and taking “The Tonight Show” away from Conan O’Brien and giving it back to Leno. If NBC goes with this last move, they can probably expect a lifelong boycott of their network by Conan’s fans. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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