I Want "The Jay Leno Show" to Fail


NBC primetime television is in big-time trouble. Profits are cascading, the shows are objectively terrible, and they've released Ben Silverman, the supposed child-genius savior of the medium. With their 10PM spot quickly fading behind CBS' juggernaut of crime shows, they had to do something radical. So they lowered the bar, lowered their overhead and bumped up TV's reigning king of low-expectations humor into the primetime spot. Who's that big mug threatening to remake the future of television? It's Jaaaaaaaay Leno!

I don't hate Jay Leno. In fact, I think I might like him more than anybody I know. His brand of comedy is something like hot plain oatmeal. Wholesome, simple, and comforting, and yet you don't often find yourself bragging to a friend the next morning: "Dude, you will not believe this plain oatmeal I had last night." In fact, the only Jay Leno jokes I recall hearing are jokes that end with the words: Jay Leno. He's about as hip as a sweater vest.

And about as cheap to make, too. The Jay Leno Show costs practically nothing, which means NBC doesn't need blockbuster numbers to turn a profit in its 10PM spot. Running five nights a week, the show will still cost less than a single hour of primetime drama. That's why the media world is in a tizzy about NBC's experiment. If this "works" -- hard to know what that means -- it will be the biggest thing to happen to TV since reality shows. It means network TV doesn't have to make big, expensive stories anymore.

So what could go wrong? Two things, as Time's James Poniewozik points out. First, if Jay Leno's numbers kill NBC's 10PM spot, the real damage will be to the 11PM spot. NBC news affiliates across the country are concerned, for good reason, that by low balling their lead-in show, NBC central could devastate the ratings of 11 o'clock news across the country. And bad numbers at 11PM means even worse numbers for Conan O'Brien.

Second, I'm worried about what this does to NBC's reputation. True, NBC has screwed its own reputation handily in the past few years. Knight Rider? Lipstick Jungle? My Own Worst Enemy? These were powerfully horrible shows, and perhaps creative teams responsible for one hundred days of Kath & Kim do not deserve a second opportunity on earth. But by conceding defeat so brazenly -- and by running a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that seems to trumpet the network's own creative failures -- NBC is trafficking boldly in the dilution of its brand. I can't root for that to be rewarded. I still like my hot plain oatmeal. But I want The Jay Leno Show to fail.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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