TV Eye: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Uh oh. Turns out Jay Leno's not going away after all.

Jay Leno
Jay Leno

Just when I was gearing up to count down Jay Leno's departure from The Tonight Show – and hoping that rumors of him jumping to ABC would not come true – NBC pulled a fast one. The network announced it is moving Leno to prime time. Not The Tonight ShowConan O'Brien still gets that gig – just Jay. He's not going away. This move sent the entertainment media atwitter. Aren't dramas the cornerstone of prime time? Is this move by NBC a harbinger that the TV drama is coming to an end? Is this the end of TV as we know it?

The short answer is that it's cheaper to produce a talk/variety show than the typical hourlong drama series. Networks are still recovering from the writers' strike earlier this year. With an actors' strike looming and the sagging economy creating layoffs all over the media landscape, it's clear NBC is trying to cut a few corners. Aging baby boomers (who else watches Jay Leno?) are likely to follow a known quantity. So why not move him to prime time, when they are even more likely to watch?

The longer answer to these questions may be a little more complicated.

The peacock network may be giving up on the drama, but only in prime time and probably only for the short term. Besides, who said dramas have to air in prime time? Maybe it's prime time that's going away, not the drama. But perhaps closer to the truth is that prime-time TV is becoming reality-TV time.

Most people prefer to watch the latest episode of reality series like American Idol in real time instead of recording and watching it days after the airdate or waiting for it to come out on DVD like certain drama series. In fact, unlike certain dramas, which actually play better on DVD, most reality series (especially the competition variety like Survivor or The Amazing Race) have a short shelf life once the competition is over. Part of the success of reality series like American Idol lies in the fact that viewers can watch it at night and discuss it immediately on fan sites or at work the next day – the so-called water-cooler hit. Viewers tend to hoard dramas for later viewing. The Wire, for example, gained a new and larger audience once it became available on DVD. It's the difference between the need for immediate gratification (reality) and the desire to savor a good story (which series like The Wire, Mad Men, Damages, and others fulfill).

Which brings me back to the future of drama on TV. There will always be an audience for drama, good and bad. But the numbers the big networks want in order to call a series a hit is gargantuan compared to netlets like USA, AMC, or TNT. Series like Monk, Mad Men, and The Closer probably wouldn't have made it on regular network TV, not because they're subpar but because their audience numbers are, by network standards, low.

Maybe – just maybe – the time of the big four networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox – remember when it used to be a joke to include Fox?) is becoming a thing of the past, like dinosaurs, pagers, and 15-cents-a-gallon gas. But I don't think dramas – and the appetite for story – will ever die. In fact, I foresee the day when "straight to DVD" or "straight to the Web" will not be seen as the booby prize or the last-ditch effort to recoup losses from a less-than-spectacular hit on TV networks. CBS is already dabbling with this with an online-only series called Novel Adventures. (If you haven't seen it, don't worry. It's essentially a long Saturn commercial laced with a frothy story about four gal pals, played by actresses pretending they're not in a long commercial.)

So how will Jay Leno fare in prime time? Don't know, don't care. My big wish right now is that My Own Worst Enemy, recently dropped by NBC, will be picked up by another network, much like Scrubs was scooped up by ABC after NBC lost interest. Why not? It's not any stranger than Jay Leno moving to prime time.

As always, stay tuned.

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Jay Leno, The Tonight Show, Conan O'Brien, Novel Adventures, variety shows

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