19 February 2010

A Restrained Relaunch for Jay Leno on NBC

USA Today

NBC considered depicting the failed Jay Leno Show as a mere dream: Promo spots would feature Leno and Victoria Principal in the shower, an homage to the classic Dallas scene in which Principal dreamed the death of her onscreen husband.

Instead, the network is opting for a low-key echo of the commercials that launched Leno: Last fall, he was shown driving a race car emblazoned with a 10, a reminder of his new slot.

In spots that began airing during the Olympics Wednesday night, he's driving the same car, only the 10 is replaced by 11:35 (or 10:35, depending on your time zone), as the Beatles song urges him to "Get back to where you once belonged."

The approach is in marked contrast to the hype — painted buildings, grocery-aisle ads — that greeted his move to prime time last fall. Back then he was heralded on the cover of Time as the "future of television"; on March 1, NBC tries to relaunch Leno in his late-night perch and repopulates its 10 ET/PT schedule with dramas and reality shows.

The consensus from experts is that, promos aside, the new/old Tonight Show will do better than Conan O'Brien's short-lived version but not as well as it did before Leno left. "The damage to the Leno brand is real," says Sam Armando of ad firm SMGx. Leno sought to repair the brand in a lengthy interview with Oprah Winfrey and a Super Bowl ad for rival David Letterman that was designed to mock Leno.

"Whether true or not, Jay was perceived as doing something that was kind of hurtful to Conan O'Brien," says Brent Poer of Mediavest, though "memory and sympathy can wane very quickly."

Says John Rash of Campbell Mithun: "He was the reigning king of late night. But the negative news on his show, his performance, his guests and his hold on pop culture were questioned loudly and repeatedly for months, which makes it more of a challenge."

Leno will reclaim the desk he abandoned during his five-month prime-time stint, along with most elements of the old Tonight. But longtime bandleader Kevin Eubanks is expected to leave eventually to "pursue touring and recording opportunities," NBC says.

Meanwhile, Letterman's Late Show, which has been the No. 1 late-night talk show since summer, is preparing to defend its newfound success.

Late Show had planned to take off in early March but will go dark next week instead, an unusual move during a ratings sweeps. It has booked A-list guests including Jerry Seinfeld (Leno's first prime-time guest), Tom Hanks and Matt Damon for its first two weeks against Tonight.

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