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Is the Leno Effect a Game of Dominoes?

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Oct 12, 2009 | 4:11am EDT

Is the Leno effect hazardous to NBC's health? The New York Times' late-night expert Bill Carter today says it's not just a question of how the new Jay Leno Show is faring in the ratings, but also what the show's occupation of the 10pm slot on NBC means to the network as a whole.

Last week, NBC canceled the well-received drama Southland, which could no longer air at 10 given Leno's occupation of that slot. Further, Law & Order: SVU, which was the leading drama when it played at 10 on Tuesdays, is now finishing last after moving to 9 on Wednesdays.

Late newscasts on NBC affiliates are also reporting significant ratings declines, at least partly because of a ratings drop-off in the 10:30 half-hour that precedes them.

Shari Anne Brill, the senior vice president and director of program analysis for the advertising agency Carat, told the NYT, "It's really looking like dominoes."

Further, although one could argue that there is a current extortion + sex-with-staffers fueled 'Letterman effect' that has helped keep eyes trained on CBS and not on Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show, O'Brien has been inheriting much smaller audiences than ever before in Tonight's history.

NBC’s second act in late night, Jimmy Fallon, is thus getting a much weaker lead-in than O'Brien did in the same hour a year ago, and as a result is falling behind his CBS competitor, Craig Ferguson, in audience totals.

NBC points out that both its late-night stars remain more popular with younger viewers, but in the past NBC's late-night hours were dominant across the board, not just with narrower audience segments, the NYT notes.

Meanwhile, this is all playing out while General Electric is said to be in talks with Comcast to sell NBC Universal.

NBC's performance overall has not shown signs of a comeback with only two real points of strength now, the Times, says pointing to The Biggest Loser on Tuesday and The Office on Thursday.

Although NBC says Leno needs to be judged over the full year, for some, the judgment is already clear-cut. Producers of shows that have in the past, and could in the future, filled the 10pm slot on several networks are using words like "complete calamity" and "utter disaster" to describe the current state of NBC, the paper says.

Brill, however, notes that the early results are really no surprise. "It's exactly what I predicted." The decision to move Leno to 10 "was never a ratings decision. It was a money decision."

Leno's show represents a savings over expensive 10pm dramas.

Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal Entertainment chairman, told the NYT he was certain of one aspect of the Leno move: "We'll make money at 10 o'clock this year, I guarantee."

"Look at how ABC is doing at 10 against Jay," he added. ABC's performance, the NYT notes, is providing some cover for NBC's move. Leno is already faring as well or better than two new ABC dramas, The Forgotten and Eastwick, and he is not far behind Castle.

Gaspin argued that NBC is not abandoning quality drama. "Maybe we made some wrong choices with shows this season, but we are still investing in programming," he said.

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