- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

UPDATED:

With all eyes on Jay Leno and the debut of “The Jay Leno Show” on NBC Monday night, Mr. Leno had a lucky scheduling fluke.

Rapper Kanye West, who interrupted young country star Taylor Swift as she accepted an MTV Video Music Award on Sunday, was already set to sing with Jay-Z and Rihanna on the inaugural show.

Mr. West got a large audience to offer a mea culpa. Mr. Leno got huge buzz going in to his much talked-about move from “The Tonight Show” at 11:30 p.m. to a five-nights-a-week 10 p.m. slot.

“Just dealing with the fact I hurt someone,” Mr. West said when asked how his day had gone on Monday. “I took something away from a talented artist. … I immediately knew I was wrong. I knew it was rude, and I would like to apologize to her in person.”

Mr. West even teared up a bit when Mr. Leno asked what Mr. West’s mother, Donda, who died in November 2007, would have said about his behavior. Would she be disappointed, or given him a lecture, Mr. Leno asked.

“Yeah,” said Mr. West. “I’m ashamed I have caused someone hurt. I need to take some time off and analyze how I am going to make it through this life and improve.”

Mr. Leno also mentioned Mr. West’s behavior at the awards ceremony early in his opening monologue.

“President Obama’s had a busy week,” Mr. Leno quipped. “He invited Kanye West and Taylor Swift to the White House for a root beer summit.”

The first show’s opening monologue was similar in one-liner quality to Mr. Leno’s openers on “The Tonight Show.” Political potshots included Mr. Obama, former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, tennis star Serena Williams and the hapless Detroit Lions.

There were not-that-funny taped bits about sidekick Kevin Eubanks cavorting behind Mr. Leno’s back and a musical number about entertaining people at a carwash. There was a fairly funny “interview” with Mr. Obama made of previous interview clips spliced with questions from Mr. Leno.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld came out in a tuxedo to talk with Mr. Leno.

“You couldn’t get a big name?” Mr. Seinfeld asked. “Your people are aware I have not been on TV in 11 years?”

Parts of “The Jay Leno Show” are similar to his late-night format on “The Tonight Show,” but some have changed.

Out is the traditional host’s desk; in is a car-themed set where guests sit on chairs, much as on “Oprah.”

Out are multiple guests and a nightly musical guest (although there likely will be bands twice a week or so) as Mr. Leno has said there are so many other ways to hear new music. In are a single guest, as well as a group of correspondents, much as on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.

Among the correspondents: comedians D.L. Hughley, Mikey Day, Nick Thune and Rachael Harris.

Holdovers from the old show include Mr. Leno’s monologue and segments such as “Jaywalking.”

NBC relentlessly promoted the new format through the summer. And why not? Going to prime time where it will be competing mainly against dramas — is a huge gamble.

Although viewership should be relatively high this week thanks to the curiosity factor and little competition as most fall premieres are scheduled for next week, the real impact of the novel move won’t be known for a while.

Executives at rival broadcast networks ABC, CBS and Fox will be watching closely, though. Mr. Leno in prime time could be a dud or the shift could have dramatic repercussions throughout network programming.

Airing “The Jay Leno Show” five times a week in prime time will cost about one-third as much as the $300 million annual price tag for producing a prime-time drama. If “Leno” triggers a trend toward talk shows over dramas, that could affect thousands of writers, crew members and others who have been employed by big-budget dramas for years.

Executives at the other broadcast networks have pointed out recently that the Leno move to prime time was dictated not by problems common to all networks but by ones specific to fourth-ranked NBC, namely thin offerings, and an attempt to keep Mr. Leno from jumping to another network.

“They’ve clearly given up,” Peter Tolan, producer of “Rescue Me” (on the FX cable network), said of NBC at a TV press tour event last month.

Mr. Leno was a groundbreaker in 1992, when he took over “The Tonight Show” from venerable host Johnny Carson. The first few months were full of barbs from critics and viewers, and Mr. Leno struggled against rival host David Letterman. However, within a few years, Mr. Leno’s show was No. 1.

Mr. Leno told reporters in a recent conference call that he is “hopefully optimistic” about moving to prime time. Many critics say Mr. Leno’s new show will be considered successful if it has about 5 million viewers nightly about the same as the “Tonight Show” garnered at 11:30 p.m. but about half as many as dramas such as “CSI: Miami,” which run in the same time slot.

“Television is dying,” Mr. Leno said. “I don’t know what TV is anymore. The advertising dollars are not there anymore [to support many high-cost scripted shows]. At this point, people know what you do. They either like you, or they don’t. All you can do is give it your best shot.”

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