Fall TV Preview 2009: The TV Column

Fall TV Preview 2009: Lisa de Moraes on How NBC's Jay Leno Experiment Might Affect the Prime-Time Landscape

The Post's TV columnist Lisa de Moraes reports on the television industry's changing landscape with the upcoming fall season.
By Lisa de Moraes
Sunday, September 6, 2009

The start of the 2009-10 TV season should be a time of celebration in Hollywood. When the Premiere Week spigots open up, nearly 100 hours of prime-time programming will plead to be seen.

Plots will get rescued from hanging cliffs, series cast members will jockey to become the latest career made -- or remade. Cable will once again take its well-deserved fourth-quarter breather after a long hot summer chipping away at the broadcast audience with original scripted series, before revving up again in January.

But instead of celebrating, Hollywood creative types are flinging themselves on their sofas and chewing the cushions in an agony of grief over the coming season's Big Broadcast TV Experiment.

They've survived experiments of the past -- those that have stayed (reality TV) and those that have gone (prime-time quiz shows). But no experiment has ever been such an outstanding blot on the public's best interest as NBC's decision to ditch all of its drama series time slots at 10 p.m. Monday through Friday for its new Jay Leno-hosted comedy/talk/variety show. That's five drama time slots gone. (Okay, maybe three drama series and a couple of "Datelines.")

This experiment could profoundly change the way broadcast networks do business and what you, dear readers, see on television. For years, NBC was THE home of upscale, elegant, must-see scripted series. Now the network is skipping the must-see angle and going for the must-save.

Giving Jay the 10 p.m. time slot is not just about keeping him from going to ABC to pound Conan O'Brien in late night -- it's about programming to profit margins. That new paradigm has Hollywood feeling like it had stopped to tie its shoelace and got hit in the back by the 9:25 Pacific Surfliner to San Diego.

If you add in NBC's two-hour fat-farm competition series "Biggest Loser" on Tuesdays, the network's "NBC Rerun Theatre" on Saturdays and its NFL football package Sundays, what you've got is NBC airing a mere eight hours of scripted shows each week out of prime time's 22 hours.

To put that in perspective: That's the same amount as produced by CW -- the sexed-up Gen Y soap network.

Meanwhile, CBS, the country's most popular TV network, will air twice as much scripted fare as NBC: 16 hours per week. But they and ABC will be watching the Big Broadcast Experiment closely.

While NBC is giving the drama genre a swift blow to the windpipe, this season is bringing back comedy in a big way. Broadcasters evidently have finally decided -- what with the economy, the wars, global warming, health-care costs and Katherine Heigl announcing that she's taking a long break from "Grey's Anatomy" to star in yet another glutinous romantic comedy flick -- that we're all depressed enough to actually give sitcoms another chance.

* * *

So why is NBC doing this Big Experiment? It's rewriting the Broadcast TV Playbook.

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