Playing 'Moneyball': Can Leno's 'Tonight Show' Use Billy Beane?

My only question about Jay Leno's 50% cut in salary: Will the jokes be half as funny and will advertisers still crack a smile -- and their wallets?

Leno supposedly made $30 million before, and now just $15 million. From my end, I'll offer just smirks, not outright guffaws. You get what you pay for.

The budget for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" had been $100 million. Now? Around $80 million, if you also subtract the recent staff budget cuts ordered by NBC Universal. It's not surprising: NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast Corp., might be looking harder at the bottom line in order to further its investment in the company.

There are always TV budget cuts. Why pay big salaries when you get the same performances with less? Kyra Sedgwick -- supposedly the highest-paid actor in a cable drama -- is gone. Her show, now called "Major Crimes," continues on TNT with essentially the same cast. Warner Bros. and TNT, were you trying to save a bit of money here?



Better still, have TV executives -- including those at NBCUniversal -- been reading more of "Moneyball," the big best-selling book made into a theatrical movie starring Brad Pitt?

The main crux of "Moneyball" focused on the Oakland Athletics' reinvention of how to pick baseball players. Instead of usual measures like strength, batting average and general athletic appearance, the team and its feisty, against-the-grain-thinking general manager Billy Beane considered less glamorous stuff like on-base percentage and slugging stats that actually contributed to the bottom line. They answered a key question, "How are runs really created?"

The A’s have been operating on a lower budget than other baseball teams. That's also what TV networks are increasingly trying to figure out: how to get the best ratings for the lowest possible cost, and hopefully less than the other teams are paying.

So you might ask what measures the "Tonight Show" can look to.  Do they come from jokes, key celebrity "gets," or the still-important "ratings"?  Well, the last result is still the currency that matters for advertisers. NBCUniversal hopes that, despite a lower budget for the show, advertisers will continue to pay the same (or perhaps more).

Kantar Media reportedly puts "The Tonight Show" ad revenue at $159 million, down from $255 million in 2007. So it is still profitable. But now that Leno’s ratings are often deadlocked with CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" -- and with ABC moving "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to the same time period -- more competitors are chasing the same chatty, sarcastic entertainment late-night talk show rating points.

My only question going forward: Can Leno hit with runners in scoring position?



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