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Jay Leno can't save NBC

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Train wreck alert: Jay Leno.

Jay Leno is not funny. Leno is a tedious, rat-a-tat 10th-rate joke machine lacking real wit, nuance or edge. But, you know, NBC has this plan to save the network by airing an hour of Leno at 10 p.m. every weeknight. I'm telling you now, this could be a total disaster.

Killing off the 10 p.m. drama hour and replacing it with Leno – doing a monologue, an interview and comedy bits for an hour, apparently – is one of the oddest moves in U.S. network TV history. The last time anything of this nature was attempted was in 2000, when ABC made the decision to air Who Wants to Be a Millionaire four nights a week. The popular show – a prime-time fad, really – quickly burned out and the multinight tactic was disastrous for the network.

It took years for ABC to recover. Airing so much Millionaire meant it stopped developing new dramas and comedies. Ultimately, ABC's ratings sank and its bottom line stank. In fact, the ripples continued for several years and dragged owner Walt Disney Co. into a contentious corporate battle. U.S. cable giant Comcast Corp. blamed ABC's terrible ratings for dragging down Disney's fortunes and ABC's failures provided Comcast executives with an excuse for a takeover fight.

Leno's popularity and alleged comic gifts are not the core issues here. NBC's tactic is all about money, short-term savings and making the next financial quarter figures look good. Just as it was with ABC's Millionaire tactic. And NBC's amazing Leno decision has the other networks crowing that they expect to laugh all the way to the bank. Shortly after the announcement, CBS chief executive officer Les Moonves said that NBC's decision to put Leno in prime time five nights a week would certainly help the CBS bottom line.

Earlier this month, in a quarterly earnings conference call, Moonves told analysts and investors: “We were the No. 1 network at 10 o'clock last year.” He then said that CBS took in an estimated 38 per cent of the broadcast ad revenue available at 10 p.m. and suggested that even if NBC does well with Leno, he expects CBS's ad revenue share to jump to “45 per cent, maybe 47 per cent.” With a typical Moonves cockiness, he said, “that's why we wish Jay well. We think this is a big plus for us and ABC in terms of revenue.”

Yesterday, CBS announced that it was taking the 10 p.m. drama Medium off NBC's hands. NBC was either cancelling the show anyway, because of the Leno move, or diminishing it to a short-run series for next season.

CBS stepped in and described NBC's attitude toward the successful Medium as “inexplicable.”

In fact, the TV racket derision aimed at NBC's Leno decision went up several notches this week. On Tuesday, during ABC's new-season announcement, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel took aim and said, “NBC is giving Jay's viewers exactly what they want: an early-bird special.” He meant, of course, that Leno's fans are mainly senior citizens who'll appreciate an hour of his codger-humour while they doze off.

Leno's strength, such as it is, amounts to inane chit-chat with those self-absorbed, therapy-addled movie stars who go on The Tonight Show (NBC, A, 11:35 p.m.) to talk up a new movie and tell some innocuous personal tale that's been cleared by publicists. Outside of that, his work is meaningless, mindless pap. David Letterman is demonstrably superior as a comic and satirist. Even Kimmel seems smarter and Jimmy Fallon seems more clued-in to the world outside of L.A.

And it's not just about comic talent. It's about that ability to connect with the world, with what the viewers see and feel.

Back in September, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the late-night talk shows disappeared. When they eventually returned, it felt momentous, era-defining in the American culture. Letterman looked like he had aged 10 years in the days since last seen on the air.

Hesitant, fidgeting with his pencil, he talked for 10 minutes about what had happened in New York. The most telling remark in his spare, human response to events was his assertion that he didn't always trust his own judgment in these matters. It wasn't an admission of ignorance, it was honest bewilderment about the reasons why New York had been a target for such terrible acts.

Leno, deprived of the opportunity to be a joke machine, opened The Tonight Show with a monologue that was excruciating. He mentioned his mom, his dad and the Boy Scouts. He said that continuing with The Tonight Show was like giving a cookie to the firefighters, police officers and rescue workers.

Mark my words – this all-week Leno plan is a terrible mistake. Look out, train wreck coming.

Check local listings.

Also airing tonight:

Doc Zone: The Battle of the Bag (CBC, 8 p.m.) is a documentary about the pestilence that is the plastic bag in our culture, as some people see it. All the consequences of using plastic bags are discussed. And there's a chat with someone who is a collector. It's preachy and irritating, to be honest. But it's a hot topic, so worth watching. Later on CBC, at 9 p.m. the documentary Arctic Rush, about the melting Arctic, continues the environmental theme tonight. Apparently, soon, if we're not drowning in plastic shopping bags, we'll be up to our eyes in cold water. Or something.

So You Think You Can Dance (Fox, CTV, 8 p.m.) is back. As soon as American Idol ends, the dance show returns. The Canadian version returns later this summer. It's a fun show, thrilling at times. The Fox version is hosted by the charming Cat Deeley. But she's no Leah Miller, I'll tell you that for nothing.

Southland (NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.) reaches its season finale. The police officers find a gang member dead in a car trunk outside Dodger Stadium. A midseason show, it's the best new drama of 2009. J.D.

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