When “The Jay Leno Show” premiered in primetime several weeks ago, eating up roughly a third of NBC’s primetime lineup, it was generally agreed that the network was making a calculated gamble. Even if the show failed to live up to expectations, it would be markedly cheaper than producing five hour-long dramas for the same time slot. Still, most onlookers were vocally dismayed over the similarity between “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “The Jay Leno Show.” All the signature bits—from Jaywalking to Headlines—were there. Kevin Eubanks was on the sidelines joshing along from behind his guitar. The monologues featured the same mixture of light political humor and Octomom references. The celebrity interviews were typical, slow-pitch affairs. About the only notable difference was the loss of Leno’s desk.
Give the show some time, defenders (and the network) said. Leno just needs to settle into his new digs. But what do they think is going to change in a month or so of doing “The Jay Leno Show” that didn’t change in 17 years of doing “The Tonight Show”? Here we are in the third week, and the show looks exactly the same as is did on Sept. 14. ... Which is exactly the same as it looked on Jan. 14. ... Which is exactly the same as it looked in 1998. On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing. Fans of Leno are getting more of what they’ve come to expect (jokes about Bill Clinton’s libido, clips from Cameron Diaz’ new movie). On the other hand, we’re now faced with the prospect of an NBC lineup that includes two hours’ worth of “The Biggest Loser” and then three straight hours worth of celebrity chat shows (Leno, O’Brien and Fallon). It’s like NBC has given up and said, If you’re old, don’t have cable and aren’t already watching “Mad Men,” these are the dregs you deserve.
True, Leno has tested out a couple of new segments—one in which he races celebs in go-carts, for example—but the show just feels pale and sleepy in the glare of primetime. Other networks, which are now competing with Leno in the 7 to 10 p.m. bracket, have even banned their stars from appearing. This has left Leno with a mixed bag of regular guests and an inordinate number of “live on satellite” interviews. Even opening night guest Jerry Seinfeld dug into the host, asking, “Do your bookers realize I haven’t been on the air in 11 years?”
The show debuted to a respectable 18.4 million viewers. Within a week, however, that number dropped to just under 6 million. That translates to a 1.8 Nielsen share (by comparison, timeslot competitor “CSI: Miami” had a 4.3 Nielsen share). NBC has said the show will produce a big profit on anything above a 1.5. Less than a month in, the show is already hovering close to that break-even point. Still, the network maintains, “It’s cheap”—which seems to be about the only defense at this point. Hey, a test pattern would be even cheaper. NBC might want to look into that.