Televised Sea Change

As someone working in scripted TV production…holy shit, this is bad news: NBC is replacing its entire 10pm hour with a nightly prime-time hour of Jay Leno.

If you look purely at the numbers, it absolutely makes sense for fourth-place NBC, whose ratings have completely tanked this year due to the fact that they put on some atrocious, atrocious television shows this fall, and who just completely gutted the ranks of their execs:

Though Mr. Leno will command an enormous salary, probably more than $30 million a year, the cost of his show will be a fraction of what a network pays for dramas at 10 p.m. Those average about $3 million an episode. That adds up to $15 million a week to fill the 10 p.m. hour. Mr. Leno’s show is expected to cost less than $2 million a week.

So let’s run some math here. Leno does about 46 weeks worth of shows, and at $2 mil a week that’s about $92 mil a year. Scripted shows do 22 episodes each, at 5 per week and $3 mil apiece that’s $330 mil a year. This change stands to save NBC Universal $238 million annually.

Let me repeat that: Paying Jay Leno $30 million a year will save NBC Universal almost a quarter billion dollars a year.

And for those of us on the scripted side of things, where network work has already been getting squeezed out by cheaper reality shows, this is a HUGE blow. Work has already been slowing because of the recession and the impending SAG strike.

For NBC to summarily declare they’re going to give up 5 hours a week is a brutal addition to the litany of problems facing everyone who works in scripted television. There are already too many people and not enough work to go around, and this is just going to make it infinitely worse.

I’m hopeful that cable’s going to continue to pick up the slack, but cable shows are, unfortunately, usually quite a bit less stable employment than network. Cable shows do 13-15 episodes in a normal season, or about 5-7 months worth of work. Networks shoot 22-24, or about 9-10 months worth of work.

Being on a good show on a network is almost like having a real job: If you’re in the office, you work almost year-round. If you’re in cable, you tend to bounce more from show to show, and it’s harder to form a team because everyone’s getting rotated into different schedules.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens. The common thread I’m finding in most commentary is that it’s a plan born of desperation on the part of NBC, but it brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from my favorite movie of all time, The Great Escape:

Now why didn’t anyone think of that before? It’s so stupid, it’s positively brilliant!

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