Jay Leno tries to win over the critics

Jayleno_290 To say that the TV-critic community is skeptical of NBC's plan to strip "The Jay Leno Show" across primetime five nights a week is to put things mildly.

The question is, will the group at the Television Critics Association press tour direct their snark directly at Leno, or save it for the network executives who concocted the plan? Leno takes the stage at 5 p.m. Pacific; we'll find out shortly after that -- and so will you, as I'll be live-blogging the press conference.

But first, the warm-up act: NBC late-night boss Rick Ludwin comes on stage first to answer questions that Angela Bromstad and Paul Telegdy didn't answer this morning.

Studies by the network, NBC affiliates and others have shown that people like Leno and are curious to see what the new show is like. The show will likely end with a comedy bit, which will lead directly into the local news -- probably with no ads in between.

Ludwin says the network is commited to Leno for at least a year, and, he hopes, many years beyond. But he won't put a number on what will be considered success.

Critic: If you had it to do over, would you have issued a press release calling Conan O'Brien "the new king of late night" after his first week on "The Tonight Show"? Ludwin: "No." Doing so was premature, he concedes, but the network was really excited at the first-week numbers.

Ludwin doesn't anticipate too much booking conflict between Leno and Conan -- and says even if there is occasionally, it's better than if Leno had moved to another network and was competing directly against "Tonight."

Conan is winning his timeslot in adults 18-49, and "That's what we sell," Ludwin says. "We're not disappointed at all" in the ratings -- although "The Late Show with David Letterman" is outdrawing it overall. We're thrilled."

In re: audience research for the show, a reporter notes that often times people say, Sure, I'd watch Famous Person X because they know the name and like the personality, "and then that show is 'Emeril.'" Ludwin cracks, "When has that ever happened?," then says that Leno is enough of a proven commodity that people who say they like Jay probably will like the new show.

And heeeere's Jay.

First reporter with the mic wants to hear jokes about Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin. Oof.

Comedy bits that close the show will include "Jaywalking," "Headlines" and other established bits. "Is that the strongest challenge with this, the last 15 minutes?" is the question. "The first 45 will be challenging too," Leno says.

What's different about the new show, Leno notes, is that where "The Tonight Show" tends to be front-loaded with comedy and the lead guest, "The Jay Leno Show" will have to be more balanced and end big.

"It'll be something that I hope will play across the board," Leno says. Political and topical humor will be part of it, but he wants to hit the broad middle.

Correspondents include comedians ... and "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams. He'll be doing occasional bits like "stories that weren't good enough to make the news," Leno says. Williams has some decent comic chops, sure, but that doesn't seem like the right thing for a news anchor to do.

Other correspondents include comedian Mikey Day, D.L. Hughley covering politics from Washington and former "Daily Show"-ite (and "The Hangover" co-star) Rachael Harris.

The new set is bigger, won't have a desk and will allow for more interaction between Jay, his guests and the audience. Also, in homage to "Top Gear," Leno's building a race track in which celebrities will see how fast they can drive a hybrid car through a course -- it's called "the Green Car Challenge."

As with any show of this ilk, Leno says the key to the show will be immediacy. He also repeats his line about not beating "CSI: Miami" in first-run ratings, but "catching them on the curves" -- i.e., when it's in reruns and the "Leno Show" is still original, which it will be for all but six weeks of the year.

Any pressure? "No. ... If this show's a success, geat. If not, 'Well, he hosted "The Tonight Show." Did he do anything after that?'"

Re: guests involved in comedy bits: "Well, that's the idea. Until their publicist steps in and says 'My client's not doing that.'"

Critic calls "The Jay Leno Show" "controversial" and asks whether Leno is being called on to "save the network." "Phhbbbtt," Leno replies. "I'm not going to save the network. Screw the network!"

But seriously -- "I've been with NBC my whole life. There are things I like about it, there are things I don't like. But like a marriage, you work it out." And if it crashes and burns, "we'll at least go down laughing."

Critic: When you started "The Tonight Show," you looked like you were doing Rodney Dangerfield and were visibly nervous. Where does your confidence come from now? Leno: "I'm rich now." Perfect setup, and a big laugh from the room.

On leaving "The Tonight Show" and starting up the prime-time show: NBC has always had the philosophy of leaving "The Tonight Show" when it's on top, and "There's only so much pie you can eat. ... And no thoughts of going to ABC and going against Conan, because that's just bitterness."

So did Leno win over the critics? Maybe a little -- the guy's a pro, and he's confident in his own abilities as a host and comedian. And Ludwin's mini-session, in which he was much more forthright about the "Leno Show" and "The Tonight Show" than his fellow execs had been in the morning, helped too.

I'm still not ready to declare that "The Jay Leno Show" will be a smashing success in the fall -- and I still don't know for sure if NBC cares if it's a giant ratings hit, as long as it makes money and keeps affiliates reasonably happy. The proof of that will come in a few months.

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