For years--ever since Leno replaced Johnny Carson in the early '90s--media critics and analysts have assumed the only reason Leno beat CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" was because of NBC's overall prime-time position.
The programming theory went something like this: NBC's strong prime-time performance carried viewers through local newscasts on NBC affiliates and straight into "The Tonight Show."
TV critics had fostered that theory, and for perhaps good reason. For years, some 75 percent of the nation's critics regularly gave Letterman the nod as having the better show, according to polls conducted by TV business magazines such as Television Week.
That reasoning doesn't work much these days, though. Last year NBC drifted into last place, and, so far this season, NBC remains there among the four big networks. Yet instead of dropping along with other NBC shows, the "Tonight" show's lead has increased by 4 percent, to 5.6 million viewers--while the "Late Show" has dropped 5 percent, down to 4.1 million.
What's different? Some critics say Leno has a better show now --especially with regular comedy features from the likes of comedians Howie Mandel and Gilbert Gottfried. Some say Letterman's comedy bits, such as "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Will It Float," are somewhat stale.
CBS still sticks with that programming theory as the reason Leno's numbers are still higher, and some of NBC's 10 p.m. shows still keep viewers tuned into the Peacock network, such as "Medium" on Mondays and "ER" on Thursdays. Not helping matters is the fact the Letterman took a vacation week right after the start of the season, contributing to his slow start.
Other TV mysteries continue.
How does anyone explain ABC's success with "Desperate Housewives," a TV show that was rejected many times by broadcast an cable networks? Why has the spinoff of a reality show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," done better than the original, "Extreme Makeover"--especially when traditional programming theory says spinoffs never do as well as the originals?
Those are the exceptions, some might say. "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" is one--and isn't, at the same time. As a spinoff, in a sense, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" falls right where it should.
It's a good show--but the original was better.