For Leno, it’s time to put up – or shut up

You’ve heard about this for the last nine months. And it arrives tomorrow night.

For the first time in the history of television (and excluding special stunts, like Millionaire or Deal or No Deal), there is a five night a week strip in prime-time on a major broadcast network on a regular basis.

The Jay Leno Show debuts Monday night at 9 p.m., Chicago Time on NBC over WMAQ-TV. Leno, a hard-working comedian who has hosted The Tonight Show for the last seventeen years, makes the jump from late-night to prime with a hour-long variety show. This is a huge gamble for NBC, which has money – and its reputation – on the line. NBC is betting it can save money in the long run since producing Leno every weeknight would cost less than airing a drama that comes with a huge license fee or major production expenses.

Leno agreed in 2004 to give up the Tonight Show throne to Conan O’Brien in 2009 and step aside. But the workaholic had seller’s remorse, and was considering jumping to another network – notably Fox or ABC – for a whole new show in 2010. To prevent him from exactly doing just that, NBC decided to renew his deal five more years – and move him in to prime-time.

Critics and advertisers have been divided on wheter or not Leno can do well at 9 p.m. Not only he’ll face successful dramas like CSI: Miami and The Mentalist (the latter drew 20 million viewers last season), but he’ll also face successful 9 p.m. (or 10 p.m., depending on where you live) newscasts on Fox affiliates and other stations, not to mention cable programs like The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Project Runway, and South Park, which successfully draws more younger and ethnically diverse audiences.

In Chicago, Leno will face stiff competition from newscasts on WGN-TV and WFLD-TV, and sitcom reruns on WPWR and WCIU. WGN’s 9 p.m. newscast usually draws anywhere between a 4 and a 5 household rating – a huge worry for Leno, who usually goes after the same audience, the news watching 25-54¬†demo.

And the effect on NBC’s affiliates’ late news could also hinge on how well Leno performs as a lead-in. While it might not be a problem in markets where the local NBC affiliate dominates the ratings in news (Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; St. Louis; and Denver among others), it could be a problem in markets where it doesn’t – mainly NBC O&Os in top markets.

Here in Chicago, WMAQ (at 10 p.m.) was nearly beat in late news in August by WGN at 9 p.m., with one-tenth of a ratings point separating the two. Leno as a lead-in could swing the advantage to WGN’s.

Meanwhile, Leno is making some tweaks to his show to drive viewers to NBC’s late newscasts on local stations, including moving some of his well-known Tonight Show staples like “Jaywalking”and “Headlines” toward the end of the show.

If NBC succeeds with this, they will receive praise from industry analysts – something NBC has lacked for years. If this doesn’t work – some executives may be looking for another gig. And maybe that someone could be Jeff Zucker.

Let the fun begin.

T Dog’s Media Blog Archive: Jay Leno to stay with NBC – at 9 p.m. Central

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