Why NBC's not sweating Leno's falling ratings

A new network TV show that sees its ratings tumble after its debut usually meets with a swift and unforgiving fate. But don't expect that to be the case for The Jay Leno Show, NBC's prime time experiment with late-night comedy.

Thanks to a $10 million promotional campaign, Leno premiered on Sept. 14 in front of more than 18 million viewers. But by its second week, the show's audience had contracted to the 6 million-to-7 million range.Without a doubt, some of the falloff was attributable to viewers who tuned in to see what all the fuss was about only to be disappointed. (Critics certainly weren't bowled over.) No one, NBC included, expected the show to maintain its towering initial ratings, nor does it have to in order to be judged a success for the network.

"I expected them to finish third every single night," says Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president of strategic audience analysis at the media agency Carat. "We knew it wasn't going to do this week what it did last week."

In fact, says Brill, Leno is so far exceeding her projections for ratings within the demographic of adults age 18 to 49 -- the one advertisers consider most important. The fact that it was able to do so against new episodes of shows on rival networks is an encouraging sign, although it's too early to know if that trend will hold up. "There's a lot of sampling going on right now," she says. "Probably in about two weeks we'll get a better sense of things."

One thing media buyers will be looking at is not just how well Leno's show does but when it does well. "There's going to be an ebb and flow to the ratings night by night, which you never really got when Leno was in late night," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media. Adgate (who notes that NBC is a client of Horizon) believes Leno could do especially well on Thursday nights thanks to the lead-in of NBC's popular comedies The Office and 30 Rock, and to strong guest booking as celebrities flock to the show to promote their films in advance of the weekend.

Brill, however, believes Leno will find its most fertile ground on Tuesday, the night the other networks offer their weakest lineups. "Monday and Thursday will be the toughest nights," she says. "Friday, there's not as much competition to deal with, but there are fewer viewers available as well."

And the challenge doesn't just come in form of other 10 p.m. shows. "I think the biggest competition is going to be people time-shifting their 8 and 9 o'clock shows," says Adgate. "There are a lot of people who are going to be recording shows and watching them on playback at 10 o'clock, and that includes other NBC shows."

The thing to keep in mind is that Leno doesn't have to do big ratings to earn its keep. As NBC has said over and over again, the show is so cheap to produce in comparison to a scripted hour-long drama, it can come in third, as Brill and others expect it to, and still generate nice profits for parent company NBC Universal. "The measure of success for NBC is if it makes money," says Brill. "They're not looking to regain the first-place position in adults 18 to 49, not with that strategy. It's about holding the bottom line and managing for margins."
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Jose Luis Magana, AP
Jose Luis Magana, AP
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