What Happens to TV if Jay Leno Is a Hit

Has a comedy ever caused so much drama? Tonight marks the debut of The Jay Leno Show, which is either a modest proposal that allows NBC to save money while holding onto one of its biggest stars, or a Hail Mary pass with potentially cataclysmic consequences for television as we know it. As usual, the downplayers and the Cassandras will probably both be wrong, and Jay's 10 p.m. variety show will land somewhere in the murky middle. But for the sake of a good time, let's consider the possibilities.

Scenario 1: Jay is a Hit

First, let's define "hit," since we're in undiscovered country. No one is expecting Jay's new show to beat new episodes of The Mentalist. But unlike Simon Baker's show, Leno's is inexpensive—it's estimated to cost as low as 1/10th of a scripted drama. So even if the show trails its time-slot competition, or past NBC dramas, it'll still be considered a success relative to its modest price tag. To put it into perspective, Jay's Tonight Show averaged around a 1.5 share in the Nielsen ratings. The Mentalist, the biggest new show of last season, averaged around a 4 share.

In this scenario, let's shoot for the rafters and say Jay consistently commands a 2.5 share. As it turns out, the television audience was never opposed to the idea of a prime-time variety show, they just hadn't been properly reintroduced to it (and Rosie O'Donnell and the Osbournes were probably not the best ambassadors for the new format). By using a familiar face and formula, just at an earlier time, viewers flock. This is likely to be the outcome, at least at first, while Jay rides the curiosity wave to a week of early wins while most of his competitors are still running repeats. If he can maintain it, it's a mixed blessing for NBC.

The upside is a relative hit that prevents Jay from moving to another network. The downside is dwindling returns for Conan's The Tonight Show, which has had trouble triumphing over David Letterman's show even when Conan's episodes are new and Dave is in repeats. After so many years of having to choose between Leno and Letterman, the new schedule means never having to choose between the two, it just means skipping Conan night after night. Having five less hours of scripted television on the dial seems disheartening, but it's doubtful other networks will follow suit. By maintaining the status quo, they'll have the luxury of sprinkling their schedules with inexpensive reality shows, while claiming to take the high ground in maintaining a commitment to scripted television that NBC lacks.

Scenario 2: Jay Bombs

Leno's show is a bust; let's say it sinks to and stays at a 1 share. After an initial run of success, his ratings plummet once he starts doing battle against new episodes of The Mentalist and CSI's two spin-off shows. It would still be ages before NBC pulled the plug on Jay; considering the network's inability to find scripted shows with traction for the past few years, Jay's show would have to be found carcinogenic before it became a liability relative to its cost.

But let's say that in addition to poor ratings, Jay's show is such a creative failure that it becomes a detriment. There would be a frenzy of finger-pointing and anonymously sourced news about the inner turmoil. If released from his contract (which NBC will be contractually able to do after two years), Jay could potentially head to ABC and which would ignite the late-night wars anew, again with Conan pulling up the rear. NBC would again find itself in the position of figuring out to cheaply fill up its grid. Who's up for ALF repeats?

Ultimately the success or failure of The Jay Leno Show isn't so much a referendum on Leno as it is on his network, whose desperation grows more transparent by the day. Luckily for Jay, all the talk about how radical an experiment this is insulates him, at least partially, from negative impact to his brand should the experiment prove unsuccessful. This much is clear: for all of the warnings we've gotten from network heads about market forces squeezing the television industry, this is the most stark illustration yet.