Jay Leno to stay with NBC – at 9 p.m. Central

And that’s 9 p.m. every weeknight.

In a stunning and historic announcement, NBC is keeping Jay Leno by giving him a hour a night – in primetime.

Leno is expected to take over the 9 p.m. time slot (that’s 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) every weeknight as a strip beginning next fall. Excluding special events (and My Network TV’s short-lived telenovela attempt), this marks the first time in television history a single television program has been stripped five nights a week in the same time slot in primetime on a major television network.

The format of the show is expected to retain some the elements of the program Jay Leno is currently hosting.

Leno became Tonight Show host in 1993, succeeding the late Johnny Carson. Leno agreed to step down in May 2009 so Conan O’Brien – who took over late night from David Letterman in 1993 when he left for CBS – can become host of the Tonight Show (the saga of NBC choosing Leno over Letterman for Carson’s throne was wonderfully documented in Bill Carter’s The Late Shift book.)

The move is being greeted as a way to cut down on expenses and become less reliant on the network’s entertainment division, as parent NBC Universal is grappling with layoffs and a company-wide restructuring. Plus, NBC is considering giving

Leno’s move to prime-time is seen as a victory for NBC, who was being wooed by ABC, Sony, and Fox.

Thought: Yours truly is a hard-core writer, and you are probably thinking, “Oh, Terence must be against this deal because it takes food out of writers’ mouths by eliminating five-nights of scripted programming.”

Um, no. And besides, the five hours of scripted fare would have sucked anyway, if more fare like My Own Worst Enemy were being churned out.

I actually think it’s a good idea – not from an expense and bean-counter standpoint, but from a creative and counter-programming one. Think about this: at 9 p.m. Central – or 10 p.m. for those of you who don’t live in the middle part of the country – the networks put on either crime dramas, female-targeted dramas, or some newsmagazine.

But don’t forget – the 9 p.m. hour is also where cable networks bring out their best programming – Comedy Central airs South Park, SciFi airs Battlestar Galactica, Bravo with Project Runway, and so on. The good news for Leno is, these shows air once a week and their seasons are rather short.

Plus Fox, CW, and My Network TV affiliates and independents air either syndicated programming or local news at 9. WGN-TV and WFLD-TV have local newscasts, while WCIU airs syndicated repeats of Fraiser and WPWR airs Malcolm in the Middle and Scrubs in the hour (no Raymond? What gives?).

In New York, WNYW (Fox), WPIX (CW), and WWOR-TV (My) all air news at 10 p.m.

Their are plenty of options to choose from in the last hour of prime-time. So why not air a talk show? There is precendent: In the 1990’s Montel Williams’ issues-oriented daytime talk show had a successful run at 9 p.m. on WPWR – though Vibe – an urban-oriented nighttime talk show featuring the awful Chris Spencer (in the first few weeks before he was mercifully replaced by Sinbad) which replaced Montel in 1997 – faltered in the time period.

The one concern I have is what kind of effect this will have on NBC affiliates’ local late news. While Leno does well in the 25-54 demo, will he attract news viewers to newscasts? Since local news also attracts large numbers of 25-54 viewers, the flow is not a given. On the other hand, Leno could give NBC affils struggling in news – notably KSHB-TV in Kansas City and WLWT in Cincinnati – a boost, given both stations’ ratings are about as bad as their pro sports teams.

While Leno averages 5 million for NBC late night, he could actually attract more viewers, who aren’t interested in news, crime dramas, or anything cable has to offer. Leno adds to the wide variety of genres in the time period available to viewers. Aaron Barnhart of the Kansas City Star points out higher HUT levels may also benefit Leno.

And perhaps the best news of all – it gives NBC exec Ben Silverman five hours less to screw up in primetime.