LOS ANGELES – Jay Leno has shed more than a dozen pounds and the weighty traditions of the "Tonight Show" that would tie his prime-time future to his late-night past.
The desk that's central to any talk show will go mostly unused. There will also be fewer stars hawking their latest movies, TV shows and albums, and instead more comedy when NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" debuts at 10 p.m. EDT Monday.
But can the newly trim, 59-year-old Leno bring major change to American television with a one-hour show five nights a week?
"I do think this is the kind of bold move that the networks need to make if they're going to hold onto any part of their primacy in the TV world," says Tim Brooks, author of "The Complete Directory to Prime-time Network and Cable TV Shows."
A prime-time show airing each weeknight is unique in U.S. television and has the potential to be copied if it's a success. "When something new comes along on TV, it proliferates all over the schedule," Brooks says.
Leno, at least publicly, won't play along. He dismissed as "hilarious" the notion that he can single-handedly reverse the shrinking fortunes of broadcast television as viewers defect to cable and other distractions.
He also rejects the idea that he's poised to be an innovator, although the car buff is proud of his new Burbank set. With artwork of his vintage cars as decoration, it displays Leno's passion for automobiles. It even has a compact race track outside so celebrities can race environmentally friendly cars.
"Meat and potatoes. Good food at sensible prices," he says of the new show. "That's all it really is. It's not some groundbreaking thing. It's just a comedy show."
But it is, crucially, also a budget-conscious show. Leno is taking over real estate that would have belonged to a quintet of one-hour dramas that typically cost around $3 million per episode.
"It's all economic. We're here because we can do five shows for less than the price of what it costs to do 'CSI: Miami' or a 'Law & Order,'" Leno says. "That's primary. It's No. 1." And when most of the series that NBC has fielded in recent seasons are both expensive and flops, the logic becomes unassailable, he contends.
There's another parameter that "The Jay Leno Show" respects, according to its host: the audience demand for immediacy, whether in live reality series such as "American Idol" or a comedy show that's taped the day it airs and avoids reruns save for six weeks a year.
"TV has changed. It's all about what's happening right now," Leno says.
That's an unsettling reality for the scripted dramas, which at 10 p.m. are now found only on ABC and CBS (Fox doesn't program the third hour of prime time on its stations).
The changes have also put many screenwriters out of work. Only the increasingly robust cable dramas such as "Mad Men" or "Damages" are hiring.
Actor-comedian Rachael Harris ("The Hangover"), who will be among Leno's comedy correspondents, says she understands that writers are frustrated at seeing so many jobs vanish. But her writer friends, at least, can see it from her perspective.
"They understand that not only is it difficult for writers, but it's difficult for actors," Harris says. Besides, she adds, there are people who worked on Leno's "Tonight" who are grateful to have a job on his new show — and, according to Leno, those include 22 union scribes.
Besides helping fashion the opening monologue, Leno's team is working on popular fixtures including "Jaywalking," his person-in-the street pop quiz, and funny headlines (the sole reason there's still a desk on the set).
A key staple will be taped reports filed by a corps of young comedians, including Harris, D.L. Hughley, Mikey Day, Liz Feldman, Brian Unger and Owen Benjamin. One Harris contribution is "Recessioning It With Rachael," in which she offers tips like taking a car for a test drive to run errands. Another piece shows Feldman teaching seniors how to tweet.
Leno is also keeping advertiser-favored young adult viewers in mind with singers such as Jay-Z, Rihanna and Kanye West, who are set to perform together on the debut show.
TV historian Brooks says Leno is making a smart move by surrounding himself with such talent, an approach that has precedent from broadcasting's earliest days in "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The long-running show featured Sullivan as the veteran ringmaster for hot performers that famously included Elvis Presley and the Beatles. While Leno won't include that show's dated variety aspects, he has a shot at "bringing back the kind of television we haven't seen for a long time," Brooks says.
"It's a great experiment. If anybody can do it, I think it would be Jay," says veteran producer Don Mischer, whose credits include the upcoming Emmy Awards and past Super Bowl and Olympic events.
Leno is mindful that he needs to retain the mainstream vibe he brought to "Tonight," and he promises to maintain a "big tent" approach.
"Comedy, when it's done well, appeals to everybody," Leno says. "I didn't know anybody who didn't like Jack Benny when I was a kid. Kids liked him. Adults like him because he was funny."
Leno's ratings will probably not be blockbuster no matter how broad his appeal. He was averaging 5.2 million viewers during his last "Tonight" season to claim the No. 1 spot in late-night. But prime-time shows such as CBS' "CSI: Miami" can easily draw 15 million viewers.
That discrepancy led Sumner Redstone, executive chairman of CBS and Viacom, to declare at a conference earlier this year that "'CSI' will beat the hell out of" Leno, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Some longtime industry analysts question how much of a splash "The Jay Leno Show" will make, solid ratings or not.
"I don't see it as being that big. I see it as a programming alternative, but I don't see it as reinventing" prime time, says Shari Anne Brill of the ad-buying firm Carat.
Independent analyst Steve Sternberg says he would consider the show a success if it scores as well as "Tonight" did. But any advantage accrues to NBC and not broadcasting in general, he says.
"I don't think the other nets are in danger of going out of business," Sternberg said in an e-mail. Other factors, including better research, will have "a bigger role in saving the nets than Leno will."
NBC intends to stick with the show for "at least a year and, we hope, many years beyond that," Rick Ludwin, executive vice president for late-night and prime-time series, told reporters in July, declining to provide a ratings benchmark.
As for Leno, he says if the show is a winner, great; if not, he's content to rest on his 17-year "Tonight" laurels.
Harris, the comedian, appreciates his perspective.
"My opinion is that Jay, at this point, has nothing to lose," she says. "If it doesn't work, he's fine. Why not give people a chance? Why not take a gamble on funny, gamble on having a great time and seeing what works?"
NBC is owned by General Electric Co.
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