As you might imagine, the entertainment industry patients in my therapy practice have reacted with shock, disbelief and outrage to the news that NBC has decided to put Jay Leno's new talk show on the air in prime time, five nights a week, at 10 PM.
That's 5 hours a week of scripted television literally wiped from the slate.
And what does that mean? Well, according to some industry analysts, the loss of about 1500 jobs. Not just those of writers, actors, directors and producers, but the hundreds of on-set production jobs, post-production facilities jobs, even support businesses like restaurants, drivers, etc.
Announcing the news right before the holidays, NBC laid a Grinch-like surprise on a helluva lot of people. Talk about lousy timing. Not only is the country in the midst of the worst financial meltdown since the Depression, Hollywood itself has been suffering from pervasive unemployment, a severely reduced number of production and development deals, and--especially in network television--a shrinking viewing audience.
What's particularly foolish about NBC's decision--which, I grant you, will undoubtedly result in considerable short-term savings for the network--is the fact that, in my opinion, viewers still want to see late-night talk shows in the time-slots that they've always held: namely, late at night. Since the era of the first Tonight Show, viewers have associated watching late-night talk shows with "winding down" after a long day. It's the time for settling down in bed, or curling up on the couch, and letting the loose, topical monologue jokes and fluffy interviews with celebrities ease you into sleep.
Trust me, there's some clinical evidence for this. For those struggling with sleep difficulties, behavioral therapists have long suggested using simple, repetitive routines to create a bedtime habit that the body associates with sleep. Like eating a banana every night before bedtime, or having a cup of tea while reading a book or listening to soothing music.
I believe that late-night shows like Leno's and Letterman's function in the same way. They're part of the habitual winding-down process for adults. They're a post-news- show, post-checking-that-the-doors-are-locked ritual that leads almost inevitably to preparation for sleep. (And after what we see most nights on the news, we need all the sleep aids we can get.)
Conversely, at ten o'clock, when prime-time shows like CSI: Miami, Law and Order and ER are on the air, people are still alert and engaged enough for a good story. In fact, they want one. The kids are in bed (hopefully), and their parents' brains usually welcome the idea of becoming involved in dramatic narratives thankfully unlike those that have occupied them, at work or at home, during their hectic day. As their children (and themselves) did when young, adults want to be told a bedtime story.
Now, at least at NBC, the familiar creature-comfort satisfactions of late night talk shows that actually air late at night (as God intended, dammit!) have been removed. I mean, do we really want to see some hyperbolic movie star plugging his latest movie at 10 PM?
Moreover, frankly, I don't believe this new programming ploy will work. Perhaps it will at first, in the way that ABC found initial success by running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire every night at 8 o'clock. But, as with that show, I think viewers will soon tire of a five-night-a-week diet of a talk show. When that happens, NBC, suddenly faced with five prime-time hours to fill, will have to scramble to come up with new programs.
Funny. When I was a kid, I always liked the NBC logo of a peacock, with eyes embedded in each of its colorful feathers. Who could have imagined that now, many years later, all of those eyes would end up being so...well...short-sighted?