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NBC’s Leno test is getting low scores

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KAI RYSSDAL: This is going to sound like blasphemy to devotees of Jay Leno, but NBC didn’t put him in primetime five nights a week because it thinks he’s the next best thing since must see TV. He got all that that real estate, because an hour of his show is way cheaper to put on the air than, say, an hour of “Law and Order.”

If he did well, all those costs the network saved would mean a big boost in profits. Only, it hasn’t played out that way. Leno’s ratings are falling by the week. Yesterday, the head of NBC Television admitted what analysts have known for a while: that trying to set a schedule with an eye on the bottom line doesn’t really work.

From New York, Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: NBC says it’s no longer going to program shows specifically to save money. At the same time, the network says it’s not worried about the Leno ratings. And that it wasn’t expecting the kinds of ratings that would go with a hit drama.

But Jeff Jarvis of CUNY journalism school says this is an experiment that isn’t working.

Jeff Jarvis: At the ten o’clock hour, yes, it’s much cheaper to produce with Leno but the show is — pardon me, I’m on old TV critic — it’s treacle, it’s boring. It’s the worst of primetime. And it puts me asleep before 11 o’clock every time I try to watch it.

Apparently, it’s putting others to sleep too. Lots of local TV stations are complaining that Leno isn’t delivering a big enough audience to the 11 o’clock news, typically a big profit source for them.

But Ben Grossman of Broadcasting and Cable says NBC’s shift in strategy is not a reaction to Leno’s ratings. He says the network has realized it needs to invest in high profile dramas and comedies.

Ben Grossman: They’ve got shows like “30 Rock” and “The Office” that are critically acclaimed and win Emmys but they don’t do big, broad, audience numbers that you can use as currency with advertisers, that’s the problem. NBC simply has to come up with one or two new hits and they need to do it soon.

Even if they succeed, Jeff Jarvis says it’s riskier than ever before to spend that cash. He says so many younger viewers are moving away from TV to the Internet and they’re not the only ones.

Jarvis: The audience is going elsewhere, the talent is going elsewhere and the ad dollars are going elsewhere. So the TV networks are shrinking, but the only way they know how to make money is by producing blockbusters.

While NBC mulls its programming, its future hangs in the balance. Its parent company may be about to sell a controlling stake to cable company Comcast.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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