Tonight, Jay Leno says good-bye to the Tonight Show.  It will be the end of an era, but not for the same reason his predecessor’s final show was.  Johnny Carson’s final bow in 1992 meant that a popular, recognizable personality was leaving the public eye; despite being consistently top-rated Leno was never so loved.  He may, however, revolutionize prime time the way Carson revolutionized late night.

When it premiers this fall, Leno’s 10:00 p.m., five-nights-a-week talk show will be markedly different from its competition.  And that may be a good thing.  NBC Universal head honcho Jeff Zucker said recently that television networks like NBC are buoyed by their cable properties – and that the demand for cheap programming and instant hits means that shows that take time to find an audience, like Seinfeld, wouldn’t make it today.

Networks must, as Zucker said, change the way they do business for many reasons.  Original dramas on cable have become more successful over the past ten years (look at The Shield, The Sopranos, Monk, and Sex and the City) and have the advantage of a revenue stream beyond advertising.  Since you pay for cable already, FX doesn’t mind if you TiVo an episode of Sons of Anarchy and fast forward through the commercials.  But your clicker is killing NBC, which relies almost solely on advertising to generate revenue, when you skip through the proud sponsors of The Office.  Shows aired either live or on tape delay – sports, news, and, of course, talk shows – offer the best advertising opportunities.

Enter Leno in prime time, and NBC has a better venue for advertising.  And, since it airs five nights a week, viewers don’t really have to choose between Leno and NCIS – they can watch NCIS one night of the week, CSI another, and Leno when there isn’t an alternative.  As he was on the Tonight Show, Leno will be television’s fallback position.

The stakes at 10:00 are a lot lower for Leno than they were when he stepped behind Johnny’s desk.  He’s a known commodity, he doesn’t have a very high bar to exceed, and he has no direct competition.  But if it works, it could mean a big win for NBC – and, like his predecessor, Leno may inspire copycats.

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