With Leno Show Decision Done, Where Does NBC Primetime Go From Here?

Last Updated Jan 12, 2010 11:43 PM EST

While we're waiting around for the awkwardness that is NBC late night to subside, one question remains: even as NBC works to prepare the damage done by "The Jay Leno Experiment" can it survive as one of broadcast's Big Four?

If a network has ever had to resurrect itself on quite this big a scale (hey! that reminds me! why not start "Biggest Loser II"?), it's never had to do so in an environment in which broadcast dinosaurs no longer rule the earth. Even though, ironically enough, the decision to produce "The Jay Leno Show" came about as a new age response to the diminishing returns on network TV, now NBC has set itself back a few notches for trying to find a new way to look at that problem. At the same time, the headwinds for broadcast networks are only getting stronger. At the end of the 2009, cable had a 60.6 share, broadcast had a 32.1. I don't need to tell you what direction either of those shares is trending.

So, now you're a broadcast TV network in that environment, a TV network which has been last in the ratings for seven years. In fact; the only way it will avoid that fate this year is if someone trips over the plug that pipes out Fox or CBS or ABC and no one plugs it back in. NBC had to fall on its sword and kill "The Jay Leno Show," but now it has five more primetime hours to fill, when, as it acknowledged at the beginning of this whole escapade, production of the dramas that fill that hour are expensive, like $300 million per year expensive. (I bet the network is regretting it let "Southland" drift over to TNT, after NBC's so-called intelligentsia determined the show would only be appropriate in the 10 p.m. time slot, which it didn't have available at the time.)

The New York Times' Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) tweeted the following approach to NBC's five-hour primetime hole late last week:

Let's start brainstorming. What would NBC air at 10pm? "The Marriage Ref?" Burn Notice from USA?
Was he joking? Probably. But I read that and wondered if that's where we're headed -- to a 10 p.m. slot that, at least in the near-term, borrows heavily from NBC Universal's cable networks. For better or for worse, at least those entertainment properties are known brands, that many consumers are familiar with. Then again, does it cheapen the alleged luster of the NBC brand to find just anything, temporarily, to fill the 10 p.m. hole? Even when first-run programming begins to fill the hole, will the viewers lost to NBC's Jay Leno adventure ever come back?

(As an addendum, here is a post featuring monologues from most of the personalities of late night on the situation: Leno, O'Brien, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Rarely in business, let alone entertainment, does one get to see the protagonists weigh in on the situation. If you're into the vicissitudes of late night TV, this is like a hall of fame's worth of humor.)

Previous coverage of "The Jay Leno Experiment" at BNET Media: