Ten Years Ago, ‘The Jay Leno Show’ Launched

It was ten years ago--Sept. 14, 2009--that The Jay Leno Show debuted on NBC. The show was widely viewed as a colossal fail. NBC scrapped scripted dramas in the 10 p.m. hour, moving Leno from The Tonight Show to host the new 10 p.m. program five nights a week.

Jeff Zucker headed up NBC at the time. Ben Silverman was co-chair of NBC Entertainment. He described The Jay Leno Show as an alternative to all the “crimetime” stuff in the 10 p.m. slot.

Leno was slated to retire from hosting The Tonight Show, with Conan O’Brien moving in. O’Brien’s time at The Tonight Show began in June 2009.

The Jay Leno Show had a monologue from Leno, and “Jay Walking” and “Headlines.” NBC spent mightily on its marketing.

“Now we can try some new things and some different things,” Leno said at the time.

The NBC affiliates had a big say in how The Jay Leno Show came together. The affiliates board had what it called a “working group” to weigh in on The Jay Leno Show, the group focused on serving up as many viewers to local late news as possible. 

Leno was always a pal to NBC’s station partners. He spoke about the importance of a good lead-in for affiliates. “That’s really where they make their money,” he said at the time.

A survey from Norman Hecht research firm showed that more than 50% of news viewers were interested in watching the new Leno show. Frank Magid did another survey for the stations.

Not all stations were down with The Jay Leno Show. WHDH Boston, owned by Ed Ansin, announced it would debut a 10 p.m. newscast instead of Jay Leno. Ansin told the Boston Globe that The Jay Leno Show “would be detrimental” to 11 p.m. news. “It would be very adverse to our finances,” he added.

NBC called WHDH’s move “a flagrant violation.”

A meeting went down, a deal was worked out, and WHDH was on board. “Upon further consideration, we have decided to telecast Jay Leno at 10:00 p.m. starting in September," said Sunbeam owner Ed Ansin in a statement. "Jay is from Andover where I went to school. I enjoy his humor. We hope the new show is a big success."

Jerry Seinfeld appeared in the first episode in mid September. So did Kanye West, who apologized for interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs the day before.

Soon, something that became known as “The Leno Effect” started to arise. That was the new program’s drain on stations’ late news, as viewers opted to watch The Mentalist or one of the CSI shows instead.

CBS, for its part, shared “Project L.E.N.O” with affiliates, a plan to bring more viewers to the network’s 10 p.m. slot, and more viewers to stations’ late news after. L.E.N.O stood for “Late-Prime Enhanced News Opportunity.”

“Our marketing group loves acronyms,” said CBS Marketing Group President George Schweitzer.

Bill Carter, author of The Late Shift:Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, did a book about NBC’s late-night fiasco at the time called The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. The book starts with Leno doing a New York performance for affiliates and ad buyers in May 2009. Carter notes that affiliates may have had too much input in the show, leading to its downfall.

NBC thought about shortening The Jay Leno Show to 30 minutes, and pushing it back to 11:35 p.m. That meant The Tonight Show would begin at 12:05.

O’Brien wasn’t having it. “Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both,” he said in a statement put out in January 2010.

O’Brien was iffy about, among other things, bumping Late Night, which he inherited from David Letterman and passed along to Jimmy Fallon, to 1:05 a.m.

The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't The Tonight Show,” he added.

Also in January 2010, then NBC entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin addressed TV critics at TCA press tour in Los Angeles. “While it was performing at acceptable levels for the network, it did not meet our affiliates’ needs and we realized we had to make a change,” he said of The Jay Leno Show.

When the Winter Olympics began in February 2010, The Jay Leno Show was done. O’Brien got a $45 million check and moved on, and on March 1 Leno moved back to The Tonight Show

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.