Has Jay Leno Changed SF On Network TV?

NBC's announcement that Jay Leno will be appearing on your screens at 10pm every weekday starting this fall may revolutionize the industry - in a way that may not be good news for SF dramas.

Traditionally, NBC has filled the 10-11 slot with hour long dramas aimed at older audiences; this season started with My Own Worst Enemy, Law & Order: SVU, Lipstick Jungle, ER and Life in the timeslot across the week, but this approach met with varying degrees of success - Worst Enemy and Jungle have already been cancelled, and Life is apparently in danger of the same thing. Given that their replacements have been Dateline specials and reality shows that've been getting ratings that are as good as, or higher than, their more-expensive drama counterparts - and former Jimmy Kimmel Live executive producer Duncan Gray suggests that Leno's new hour will be ten times less expensive than an hour-long drama - why shouldn't NBC opt for a cheaper way of filling five hours of television a week?

(It's worth pointing out that this move is not only cheaper in terms of money, but also in terms of stress; having a talk show take up almost a quarter of your primetime hours each week also makes those hours strike-proof in the event of a repeat of last year's WGA walkout, or the discussed Screen Actors Guild action.)

Admittedly, looking at it from NBC's viewpoint, it's almost a no-brainer (NBC's competitors aren't too upset by what they see as a withdrawal from the ratings battle, either), but here are two reasons why viewers may want to be concerned about the decision - and one reason to embrace change:

What Shows Die So That Leno May Live?
This may be a moot point, given that two of the original fall launch shows in that slot have already been cancelled, but giving Leno five hours of primetime mean that five hours need to become available, by hook or by crook ("It's a bummer for the writers who are writing for drama. There are five less scripted shows at 10 p.m. That's bad for writers. People don't get it. They can't understand," according to one agent). Does this mean outright cancellations of series (Although ER is already due to finish this year, freeing up one more hour), or something more creative? We've already seen Knight Rider's season become shortened, but with rumors arising that Heroes will be following suit next year, will be see the same number of dramas, but each with shortened seasons on NBC? NBC/Universal co-chairman Ben Silverman is hinting that this may be the case:

We're still doing as much development... Overall the load will be similar.

If so, that may be a best case scenario; ABC's Lost (and many British dramas) have shown that shorter seasons can allow for less plot filler and more incisive storytelling, and if NBC reduces the length of seasons, that could free up slots for new shows in the future, instead of letting the existing hits (or, in the case of Chuck and Heroes, quasi-hits) bogart the airwaves.

(Given this year's crop of new SF on NBC - Knight Rider, My Own Worst Enemy - and last year's - Chuck, the dear departed Bionic Woman - you may be forgiven for not being particularly excited about what the network will come up with next, of course. But I'll come back to this in a minute.)

What If Leno's Show Is A Ratings Success?
Look, I like talk shows (Well, some talk shows). I even like Jay Leno. But I'd be lying if I said that I wanted his show to be a hit, because the last thing I want is something like this to become a reality (from Variety):

Meanwhile, others wonder whether the NBC move will lead its competitors to make similarly drastic moves amid the depressed advertising market.

"It's scary," said one rival network exec. "It puts the pressure on the rest of us. Any time a network does something drastic like that, there's the possibility of someone else doing something."

Among the other drastic steps that one or more networks may kick around: returning time, such as Saturday nights, to the affiliates. (In another recent unprecedented move, Fox just gave half of its Saturday morning slot to stations and will program the other half with infomercials.)

The idea that network television will (continue to) devolve into the cheapest, lowest common denominator programming is something that I don't want to see happen but, at the same time, can easily see happening. What worries me isn't that network TV moving away from dramas will see an end to quality drama in general on American television, because there's definitely an argument to be made that the best quality drama on American television hasn't been on network TV in quite some time. No, my concern is more that it means the end for quality SF/fantasy drama on American television.

Think of the great SF/fantasy shows that American TV have produced lately - not the "Okay" ones like Sanctuary, but the ones that you make a point of watching week after week - and then think how many aren't from network TV. I come up with Battlestar Galactica (and, depending on my taste for camp, maybe Brave and the Bold, Stargate and True Blood) and... that's about it. I'm sure I'm forgetting something obvious, but shows like Fringe, Terminator or even Heroes all seem so network television that I can't imagine where they'd fit on cable, or even if similar shows would be greenlit on relatively genre-unfriendly channels like Showtime. If network television abandoned hourlong dramas, would SF and fantasy shows be left to a world of SciFi Channel schlock?

Television, Like Nature, Abhors A Vacuum
Well, probably not. Yes, creators like Joss Whedon and Ron Moore went to the networks with their latest shows when, let's face it, they could've gone anywhere. But if rumors of their experiences at said networks (Well, network; both are at Fox) are to be believed, it's not necessarily a choice they'd make again. In fact, with Fox demonstrating a distinct lack of openness to new ideas and challenging programming despite being the network most active in commissioning new SF, it leaves an opening for a cable channel looking for critically-acclaimed creators and new shows - Hello, HBO - to swoop in and fill the gap in the market. But would they want to spend the money to do so?

One thing is for sure; until the financial situation starts improving, times are bleak for expensive SF drama on television - and when talk shows start making such aggressive pushes into primetime, you can expect things to look just a little bit bleaker.