NBC And Jay Leno Kill The Prime-Time Network Drama — Or At Least Critically Injure It

Jay LenoBy Josh Horowitz

I’m not one for sweeping proclamations, but today, December 9, might mark the death knell for the prime-time network drama. In a matter of months, NBC will do away with their remaining 10 p.m. dramas (I hope you’re sitting down, because, yes, Christian Slater’s “My Own Worst Enemy” is going off the air) and replace them with a brand-new talk show hosted by Jay Leno. Yes, like a bad penny (or insufferable host) Leno will turn up once again all over the Peacock schedule. Terrified of losing the “Tonight Show” host to a competitor, NBC has convinced him to stay — not by elbowing out Conan O’Brien, who’s set to take the reins of “Tonight” in May, but by bringing Leno into even more homes at an earlier hour, according to the New York Times.

These things go in cycles, so I’d be foolish to say this will permanently alter the network-television landscape. But I do think it’s clearly going to change things for a while. Let’s face it. Network dramas have been kind of over for a while. NBC hasn’t had a hit in the 10 p.m. slot in four years. Though CBS still makes a killing with its “C.S.I.” franchise and all those other procedurals your parents watch before the local news, any drama worthy of obsession, outside of the odd “Lost” and “Gossip Girl,” is on FX (“The Shield”), AMC (“Mad Men”) or HBO (er, “Big Love”?).

You might have noticed the economy isn’t doing so swell right now. People want comfort food. And that’s what Leno will deal out night after night with insipid Jay-walking segments and the like. I am certain this is a brilliant business decision by NBC. Leno’s new show will cost a fraction of what they’ve sunk into innumerable failed dramas. They’ll be able to provide new content at that hour every weeknight, virtually all year round (I’ll say this for the Leno, he’s got a work ethic). Don’t be surprised if a year from now, CBS and ABC follow suit with comparable prime-time talk shows. (Luckily we can officially take Rosie’s name off this likely suspect list after the abomination that was “Rosie Live.”)

Let me be clear. I love late-night talk shows. I worship at the altar of men like Letterman and poor Conan (that sexy 11:35 spot just got less cool, thanks to your lead-in). It’s a showbiz institution I revere. And I say that having worked on one of the most-despised late-night experiments in history, John McEnroe’s CNBC talk show. But, like anyone with an iota of comic appreciation, I kind of loathe what Jay Leno does night in and night out. The very idea of Leno spreading his crude and obvious humor for another decade leaves my stomach in knots. By all accounts, Leno is a brilliant comic and tenacious writer. He just made a deal with the devil long ago to play it broad and banal in order to garner big ratings. And NBC made a similar pact today, tossing away any artistic ambition for a quick-fix solution designed to make our eyes glaze over in benumbed ho-hum satisfaction.

But that’s just me. Or is it? Did NBC make the right call in giving 10 p.m. to Leno? What or who would you rather see in that time?