Those in the know: the critics, the intelligentsia, the elites have already started. After one show Jay Leno is getting panned unmercifully. His interview with Kanye West, just one day after West’s major faux pas at the VMA’s, is being cited as an example of Leno’s inability to connect with his guests. Leno is being demonized for asking Kanye what his dead mother would say about his rude antics the night before, a middle-America question if there ever was one. Leno’s monologue, they say, was just not funny.
Still, the same critics, as always, loved Jerry Seinfeld and admitted the musical number at the car wash was both funny and good.
Let’s take a step back here. While I am no fan, the truth is Leno knows his audience. They want big name stars (Seinfeld, Oprah, West, Jay-Z, Rihanna) and they got them. They want jokes they understand and don’t want to have to think about. They want to be entertained. The quality of the interviewing is not important. The fact that the audience could see Kanye West and hear him attempt to answer for what happened just one day earlier, as the commercial says, was priceless.
I know, I know, Leno is no Letterman. For NBC, that’s a good thing. The last thing any network is looking for is a cult hit. Cult hits are for cable. NBC needs the masses to jump on board. We’re talking prime time here, not late night. The only question is will audiences watch Leno when the blockbuster dramas begin next week? The answer, I think, is that it depends on whether Leno can continue to get the biggest names in show biz to appear on his program, especially when there is controversy involved. If so the audience will grow. If Leno gets big enough audiences, the stars will have to appear. Prime time and a big audience to sell yourself or your new movie is a mighty big draw. The bigger the audiences the more stars, the more stars the bigger the audiences.
I see the Leno show as the perpetual second choice at ten p.m. If you don’t like the ABC or CBS drama Leno becomes a real choice, something different, alternate programming, better than watching the Fox Seinfeld re-runs for the 52nd time. Leno’s numbers should be especially good when the networks begin their inevitable re-runs. CBC ratings shot up the year of the strike in the U.S. when the networks were forced to re-run show after show. Leno will be especially strong in December and during the summer when there is little new to watch on television. If he attracts the biggest stars he will also get viewers to PVR his show.
All-in-all it’s an interesting strategy for NBC. They looked at Leno who consistently beat Letterman at 11:30 and concluded he speaks to middle-America. His appeal is wide. Guests don’t hate or fear him. Many stars just don’t want to appear on Letterman to be abused. Leno’s interviews are soft, seldom does he ask the hard question or demean his guests. He’s a risk-free commodity, no home runs, but no strike outs either.
The real bottom line here is the bottom line. Leno’s show is incredibly cheap compared to any drama. It’s even cheap compared to some of the big reality shows. NBC can produce a week of Leno for less than it costs to make a single episode of Law and Order. So audiences will have to be really dismal to force the cancellation of this show. Think about 20/20 and Dateline, both shows are perennial ratings losers yet both programs have had long lives on network prime time. The reason: they are cheap. Even with poor ratings the programs make enough money to not just pay for themselves, but to actually make a healthy profit.
So let’s not argue about whether we like Leno or not, or whether he’s as good as Letterman. The fact is his non-obtrusive appeal and ability to attract big names to his show is exactly what NBC was looking for. Television audiences have never been known to accept the high concept or avant garde. CSI draws way more viewers than Mad Men. Sure it hurts to contemplate the mediocrity that network television so often aspires to. But in the end where does the fault lie? With the networks who need to make money to survive or the consumers who chose American Idol in huge numbers?
Cheap, or as my former partner used to say, “at a price,” is what most network TV is all about. We saw it first with reality television. Then came the big game shows. Now it’s the 21st century talent shows. If Leno succeeds will his success mark the beginning of a trend to prime time talk and variety? I think it will. The copycats always follow every success. In the end the real scary prospect is how reality, game shows, talent contests and now talk could squeeze drama and sit-coms off the networks. Just when CBC decides to get into drama in a big way, U.S. networks are running in the opposite direction. Costs of up to $3 million an episode will do that. The golden age of television is long gone. Welcome to the bronze age.
If you get the opportunity please go to http://www.newsy.com/video/death_of_the_american_actor/ for an interesting American view on what’s happening to network TV.