Is Jay Leno the future of television?
A recent article in Time magazine entitled “Jay Leno is the Future of TV. Seriously” utilizes NBC’s “gamble” on Jay Leno’s primetime talk show as a backdrop to explore the recent history and current state of American television. The article touches upon many of the issues currently being discussed in the academic literature on mass media and is a must read for media sociologists.
All the significant insight the article provides originates from explaining NBC’s rationale for broadcasting a traditional comedy-variety show during the heavily coveted primetime television market. On the one hand, NBC’s decision speaks volumes about the network’s current financial condition. While shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends made NBC “must see tv” in the late 1980s into the early 2000s, today NBC has fallen to a distant fourth place in the network television arms race.
NBC will be airing Leno’s variety show weeknights at 10pm, a particularly challenging timeslot for NBC. While network television traditionally plays dramas during this hour, in recent years NBC dramas have not done well relative to the competition. While television dramas are relatively expensive to produce, variety shows are a much cheaper enterprise, allowing Leno’s show to be financially successful with a much smaller audience.
While 10pm may be a particularly challenging time for NBC, the network is not alone in finding it difficult to attract a large audience. In recent years, cable stations such as HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX have established themselves as the new home for dramatic television. While their ratings are usually nowhere near network television expectations, their business model does not require such a viewership and taken together, the American audience’s move to cable has significantly reduced the ratings of all the major networks.
As the article notes, gone are the days when one American television show garners ratings in the tens of millions. Instead, the audience today is much more segmented, with groups of viewers tuning into cable channels catering to a variety of tastes, be they politics, drama, comedy, reality programming, science fiction, or animation. Within the academic community, this occurrence has received mixed interpretations. Some scholars, citing the multicultural literature, positively view this trend. These scholars see today’s multifaceted television market as a step in the right direction, not yet reflecting all the social groups, experiences, and identities present in contemporary America but certainly much closer than in the network-dominated days.
Other scholars do not view this trend so positively, interpreting television’s diverse offerings and smaller audience sizes as transforming America into a segmented society. This argument treats television (and all mass media) as a socializing force, constructing a massive civil society by connecting as many people as possible together through the shared experience of watching the same television show. These scholars view the growing proliferation in channels and programs and the small audiences they cater to as isolating America into fragmented communities in a manner that inhibits shared experiences and shared understandings.
No matter which side of the debate we sympathize with, for media scholars it will be interesting to see the results of NBC’s “experiment.”