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The bad joke of Leno at 10 ends

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

It was a groaner for NBC and audiences. That hour belongs to drama.

January 09, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Television critic
  • LATER: Jay Leno at 11:30 p.m. was a hit for NBC. But Leno at 10 p.m. has upset local stations used to dramas such as "ER" and "Law & Order" producing larger audiences for 11 p.m. newscasts. A temporary solution may be "The Biggest Loser" .
LATER: Jay Leno at 11:30 p.m. was a hit for NBC. But Leno at 10 p.m. has upset… (Matt Sayles / Associated…)

For a critic, a television viewer and a human being, the reports that "The Jay Leno Show" will soon be but an unpleasant memory, with Leno returning to the 11:30 spot, are nothing short of a belated Christmas present. Any hope that NBC's experiment with putting Leno on at 10 p.m. every blessed day would re-imagine, revitalize or even mildly contribute to television was quickly dashed. Leno does one thing very well, and that is host a late-night show. The news that he will soon be safely doing just that not only opens the 10 o'clock spot for the great dramas that were once the hallmark of NBC, it also indicates that something resembling sanity has returned to the network. Which can only bode well for us all.

It is not typical for the creative community to herald a corporate takeover with delight, but if the pending sale of NBC to Comcast is what prompted this move, then bring on the suits.

Oh, the folks at NBC are saying that the decision was in response to the woeful effect "The Jay Leno Show" has had on the local news affiliates, some of which have seen ratings drops of almost 30%. But it's hard to believe that all those smarty-pants network executives didn't know precisely what the impact would be on the local stations, many of which they own. They were just willing to sell the 11 o'clock news down the river, along with the television audience, in their bizarre attempt to cut costs and keep both Leno and Conan O'Brien happy.

But bigamy isn't legal in the state of California, something the folks at NBC should have considered before pledging themselves to two late-night hosts. Moral and religious grounds aside, dividing one's time and money between two spouses is detrimental to each, as the low ratings of both Leno's show and "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien" have proved. Yet even as the news of the move broke, the network was still dithering with talk of Leno returning to a half-hour show followed by an hourlong hosted by O'Brien, an idea that could only have come from the office of David Letterman. It's not only insulting to both men, it's patently ridiculous -- it takes Leno 20 minutes just to get through his opening monologue. And indeed, reports of Conan leaving NBC came fast on the heels of this proposed solution.

But these are grimy details outshone by the glorious news that the 10 o'clock hour will once again be back in the hands of writers, directors and actors, not to mention all the ancillary crew involved in hourlong drama. There's a reason dramas are more expensive to produce than the Leno show -- they employ more people. Which NBC seems to have forgotten is a good thing, helpful, you know, to the local economy.

Not only did retail sales rebound a bit this Christmas, but the fall season proved that neither comedy nor hourlong drama is dead. Certainly it will be nice to have NBC back in the game, touching too, just as John Wells, who gave the network the iconic "ER," settles into his new role as president of the Writers Guild where now, perhaps, a few more scribblers will be able to qualify for health insurance. (Though clearly NBC should have held on to Wells' "Southland" for at least another season.)

This is all assuming, and desperately hoping, that NBC doesn't lapse back into madness and jam 10 p.m. with reality shows, which it may have to if reported plans to boot the Leno show in March are true. Yesterday, as critics across the land high-fived each other with grateful glee, the poor beleaguered worker bees at NBC no doubt crowded into one office or the other wondering what exactly they were going to put on at 10 p.m. Sure, they may have recently ordered up a slew of new pilots, but currently the Cupboard. Is. Bare.

They could, perhaps, lift a few shows from sister network USA (although an attempt to do this with "Monk" a while back was a disaster). Though they own "Royal Pains" and "In Plain Sight," they do not have the rights to "White Collar" and "Burn Notice," the two shows best suited to succeed in a network lineup. More likely, as many have suggested, they'll reposition a few of their hourlong dramas like "Law and Order" and fill in the gaps with "Dateline."

Still, we may be looking at a lot of dragged-out episodes of "The Biggest Loser," at least until they can whip something up for the summer. But after the Leno experiment, even that seems like a step in the right direction.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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