Tonight begins what may or may not be a watershed moment in the history of television, as NBC tries airing Jay Leno in prime time five nights a week. After the jump, my Beacon Journal column on the subject, and on the fundamental question for viewers in this business experiment.
Jay Leno doesn't just quietly take a job, does he?
In 1992, when he became the host of The Tonight Show, he faced the daunting prospect of following the legendary Johnny Carson. And he had to do so while knowing that Carson preferred David Letterman. And that Letterman, having been passed over for the Tonight job, set up a competitive late-night shop on CBS, which continues to this day.
Now, NBC's late-night success is Conan O'Brien's problem. Leno could conceivably lead a problem-free life. As he noted recently in Parade magazine, he has banked all his TV income, living on what he makes from stand-up comedy. But Leno is also a guy who loves to work, who has to work -- who still operates as if every dime he has could disappear tomorrow, and he had better have another job lined up.
So is it a quiet little gig, a low-key hosting job on the fringes of TV? That's not how it works with Leno. Instead, he will be in prime time Monday through Friday, filling the 10 p.m. hour for NBC with jokes and guests and music. And maybe changing how network TV operates in the process.
As Time magazine said: ‘‘Jay Leno Is the Future of Television.’’ No pressure there.
If you've read the many articles (including some of mine), you know that The Jay Leno Show is a huge business story. That is, if he draws a decent-sized audience most nights and, more importantly to NBC, proves profitable. But viewers should be thinking about something beyond dollars and cents.
Will the show be any good? I'm not talking about the first week, when there will be some curiosity about the show, and the major network competition is still in reruns. Will it be good a week or a month or six months from now?
Will it be good enough to make you flip over from the scripted shows and local newscasts opposite it?
Will it be good enough that it will make you keep watching TV when you have usually switched it off at 10 p.m.?
Leno is betting that he can make you answer yes to one or all of those questions. He may have spent his TV hours in late-night, but on the road he has played to audiences in prime time. He has studied people and what makes them laugh for decades. He could also have the benefit of being topical and timely, which may encourage some people to check in while the DVR catches their favorite scripted show.
And he knows that, in the 10 p.m. hour on any given night, plenty of people are thinking, ‘‘There's nothing on.’’ Success, if it does come, probably will not come easily for Leno's show. But he has to at least start with the promise that he's better than nothing.