By Frazier Moore
NEW YORK — Drama is already back on NBC at 10 p.m.
That was one of many wisecracks launched by Jay Leno after NBC announced that next month Leno will be given the heave-ho from prime time and returned to late night after a disastrous experiment slotting his cheap-to-make but ratings-challenged talk show weeknights at 10 p.m. Eastern this season.
With that proclamation from the network, overjoyed producers of scripted drama could again look forward to getting a crack at those 10 p.m. hours, as they had before “The Jay Leno Show” took up residence with loads of hype last September, giving pricier scripted shows the bum’s rush.
“Nothing against Jay, but there are a lot of people in the industry who hope this fails spectacularly,” declared Shawn Ryan last fall. Creator of the FX cop drama “The Shield” and currently an executive producer of Fox’s crime drama “Lie to Me,” Ryan has gotten his wish. On Monday, he called NBC’s abrupt about-face “a little bit of restoring the natural order.”
Until then, “Southland” stood as a chilling object lesson in how scripted shows (and the people who make them) were fated to be treated by NBC.
Created by John Wells, “Southland” is a gritty police drama that inherited the Thursday-at-10-p.m. hour occupied by “ER,” Wells’ long-running megahit, when it concluded its run last April. Airing six episodes, “Southland” scored critical praise and enough viewers to win a fall pickup.
But by October, when NBC was about to begin the series’ second season at 9 p.m. Friday (the new “Jay Leno Show” had poached its original slot), the network announced the show was being canceled. A marginal ratings performer suited to a later time slot NBC could no longer offer, “Southland” was bumped for an edition of “Dateline NBC.”
“I’m disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that were for so many years a hallmark of their success,” Wells said at the time. He vowed to try to find it a new home.
By November, “Southland” had been snapped up by TNT, the Time Warner-owned cable network whose slogan is “We Know Drama.” It was scheduled to air on TNT Tuesdays at 10 p.m., starting this very week.
One of the stars of “Southland,” Ben McKenzie, said everyone on the show was shocked when NBC canceled it.
“Then we went through the five stages of grief and came out the other side,” he recalled, and everything worked out. “I don’t want to throw rocks or anything (at NBC), but TNT is really passionate about the show.”
Maybe NBC has come out the other side, too, after struggling for years to launch new drama hits, and, barring that, simply making excuses that scripted drama costs too much to be profitable. (NBC’s poor-mouthing argument doesn’t seem to apply at other broadcast networks, particularly ratings champ CBS, nor to cable channels such as TNT and NBC’s sister network USA.)
By pulling the plug on its Jay-in-prime-time gambit, “I think NBC suddenly becomes a very interesting place to develop (scripted shows) again,” Shawn Ryan said, “whereas six months ago it would have been the least desirable place in town for people in my position.
“The cancellation of ’Southland’ said to us, ’There’s not room for good adult drama at NBC.’ But now there is.
“We understand that our scripted shows have to compete with reality shows and other things to get on the schedule, but now we have a shot. All people like myself really want is the chance to compete: Give me the chance to write a pilot, and if you like it, give me the chance to make it, and if you like that, give me a chance and put it on the air and see what the audience thinks.”
In the short term, at least, NBC faces a mammoth challenge in filling the five-hour void Leno leaves behind after the network’s Winter Olympics coverage concludes next month.
“I take pride in one thing,” Leno quipped in a monologue. “I leave NBC prime time the same way I found it: a complete disaster.”