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Leno and NBC: Back to bowling -- live from Queens!

NBC is one of the most poorly programmed networks on television, but you have to give management this: They are willing to shake things up and explode major pieces of the old TV business model like no one else in the industry.

That's what they did with the announcement today that comedian Jay Leno will host a new prime-time talk show five nights a week starting in September -- three months after he steps down as host of The Tonight Show.

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His new one-hour show will air at 10 p.m., and it will be the first talk show to air five nights a week in prime time. It marks a daring shift away from scripted programming. Heck, it's a radical departure from reality TV.

Just when you thought network prime-time TV could not get cheaper, NBC found a way no one imagined. Prime-time programming hasn't been done this cheaply since the dawn of television as a mass medium in the late 1940s when polka parties from Milwaukee and bowling nights live from Rego Park Lanes in Queens were considered worthy of prime-time network real estate.

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How much is NBC going to save by going to late-night talk in prime time? The best indication came from this exchange today between Erin Burnett, of cable channel CNBC, and NBC CEO Jeff Zucker, the executive who is bringing Leno to prime time:

So, 10 p.m. is the new 11 p.m. -- right.

But Burnett's figures are essentially correct, and that's what makes Zucker's move look so appealing to the bottom-line gang. It does cost a minimum of $15 million for five hours of scripted drama. The networks thought they were doing well when they knocked that figure down to as low as $5 million for five hours of reality TV -- and attracted younger viewers to boot.

But $2 million is pure genius in network-think these days.

Unless you are an NBC affiliate like WBAL in Baltimore that is now going to have the absolute worst lead-in to your late local news at 11 p.m. just about anywhere in network TV. And most of your revenue comes from that 11 p.m. newscast.

Will ABC rush in and try to sign someone like Jon Stewart to go against Leno at 10, as some analysts are speculating?

I don't think so. I think the industry will let NBC be the pilot fish next fall, and see how it does -- and how loudly the affiliates howl.

(Photo AP)

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