“Stripping" is key to Jay Leno’s success in prime time


Many people believe that GE/NBC’s plan to move late night icon Jay Leno into a five-day primetime strip is unprecedented. But Hispanic broadcast expert Julio Rumbaut sees a precedent that’s percolating along just fine even as we speak, on Hispanic television.

“Stripping" is key to Jay Leno’s success in prime time

By Julio Rumbaut

NBC’s move to schedule Jay Leno to prime time has received mixed reviews from NBC affiliates and industry experts.

However, there has been a lack of focus on one major positive and potentially determining element of the move, NBC’s ability to run a one hour strip program (Monday thru Friday) in prime time.

Aside, from the programming costs savings and the pre-emptive strategy to keep Jay Leno at NBC, Jeff Zucker and his team may be taking a page out of the strategies of a number of other entities. These are, US Spanish language television, independent station’s prime time newscasts, the plethora of talk shows on cable channels, including those owned by NBC and of course the success of NBC’s Today and other morning shows by relying on the proven strip programming formula, now in prime time.

Yet, the most interesting analogy is in the US Spanish language television industry.

Both Univision and NBC owned Telemundo run prime time strip soap operas in three and four, respectively of their four prime time hours. (Spanish language television has four vs three prime time hours from 7 – 11 pm.)
Albeit, with the different program genre of soap operas, Univision’s Televisa supplied daily dramas dominates US Spanish language television and also consistently beats out NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox and the CW not only among Spanish speaking viewers, but in the audience ratings which include all viewers

A key to the ratings and economic success of these programs is that they run on a strip basis in prime time.
Likewise, independent stations primarily in major markets have run 10 pm and even 9 pm strip Monday thru Friday prime time newscasts for years now and these have become stalwarts of their programming schedule.
A number of major cable channels rely on talk shows with both news and entertainment values for their prime time schedules and NBC’s Today Show and the other morning shows are all strip programmed.

So NBC’s entry of Jay Leno is not so much a venture to “no man’s land”, but rather an entry using a proven strip schedule strategy and format concept arena with a tried and true performer and brand.

Let’s look at some of the major concerns and accolades expressed to date regarding the move and accompanying analysis and rationale:

– Traditional late night talk show second half hour audience level drop offs.

However, the 10 pm prime time slot does not have the same level of natural audience attrition that does late fringe. Moreover, we can expect that NBC will produce a program which mixes guests, features and other program elements throughout the hour with a goal of keeping the audience tuned in through each quarter hour.

– A lackluster lead in to late news.

What news director of any owned and operated or affiliated network station would not prefer consistency of a strip programming lead in over the daily audience gyrations of checkerboard programming and the cycles of network programming successes and misses.

 What news director would not prefer a lead program that addresses current events and trends and maximizes the ability to feature and cross promote feasible stories, events and features?

Also, if Leno works at 10 pm, the 11 pm newscasts of NBC O & O’s and affiliates will be “sandwiched” between Leno and the Tonight Show soon with Conan O’Brien and therefore between two predictably strong and consistent audience achievement programs.

Further, NBC can produce Leno for prime time with room for local cut-ins as it does with its Today Show which yields a very strong promotion opportunity for the 11 pm newscast.

As important as the lead in is to late news, so is the individual station’s news product and that is really where the game is won or lost and where managing up wards takes a back seat to real success.

One caveat what we can call the potential Daily Show (John Stewart’s comedy news spoof program on Comedy Central) effect  as NBC has to consider the downside to local stations of Jay Leno allowing viewers to get the news – though delivered humorously – prior to the 11 pm newscast.  On the other hand, the choices of real time news prior to 11 pm are many on cable and in new media and Leno cannot as a rule delve into market’s local news events.

– Putting all of the eggs in the Leno basket.

Jay Leno and the Tonight Show are proven and recognized. Not only as a performer and a show, but they are brands in and of themselves. The potentially unlimited variety and depth of guests, topics, features and the like add programming elements that veer away from reliance on a single host, no matter how good he is giving NBC future choices to maintain this program in prime time with other hosts, as it has done with the Tonight Show for decades now.

– NBC’s inability to cancel the program.

Without knowing the details of NBC’s new contract with Leno, it is clear that besides the NBC television network, NBC has multiple, recognizable and proven outlets, such as MSNBC and Bravo among others and hence has choices in the event of a failure perhaps, including perhaps moving Leno back to late fringe.  Certainly one thing that NBC unequivocally gains is the time and ability to allow Conan O’ Brien to establish himself in 11:30 pm late fringe time slot thwarting present and new competitors.

– The potential shift to lesser coveted audience demographics and a more static audience core.

The more coveted demographics are available to all in prime time so it is a matter of the content, guests and features that Leno and his production team will focus on that will count.

So it seems that in spite of the pros and cons which are in fact only theories until Leno airs at 10 pm in real time, the crux of the matter is in NBC’s ability to execute a viable format and to promote outside and inside the network with zest and with an emphasis on new media vehicles.

If Jay Leno “stripping” in prime time works it may presage a paradigm shift in the programming strategy and economics of US network television.