NBC's Death Knell?

Tonight begins NBC's great experiment with the debut of the "Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m. as the network eliminates five hours of original programming a week.

OK, "great" isn't really the operative word. Though NBC will get a boost in the short run -- people will check out Leno the first week because of the hype and because the networks haven't gotten around to airing their 10 p.m. shows yet -- and the network saves money by not producing more expensive dramas, the move will ultimately backfire in several ways:

--ABC and CBS are already prohibiting their stars from appearing on the show. So, if a popular TV star such as Mathew Fox or Katherine Heigl makes a movie, they'll be promoting it on other talk shows. And since Leno can't interview Steve Carell or Tina Fey every week, how many other NBC stars are worth promoting right now?

--Lower ratings mean lower revenue. People might flip to Leno during a commercial break during an episode of "The Mentalist" or "Lost," but they won't stick with it. Channel surfing doesn't equal ratings, and advertisers know this.

--It cheapens NBC's late-night lineup. Even those who do tune into Leno aren't going to stick with the talk show format through Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly. It's too much. Conan is already struggling against David Letterman, and a weak lead-in from a similar show (to a guy he's already being compared with) won't help "The Tonight Show" any.

--Even with a format that is closer to "The Daily Show" than "The Tonight Show," Leno won't really be drawing in the younger viewers advertisers crave.

--If Leno falters and the big-wigs decide to change, NBC hasn't developed any sort of alternative programming.

This is really a case of NBC signalling "We surrender!" rather than alternative programming. Yeah, NBC is saving a little money up front, and Jay will get the occasional guest that is worth viewing, particularly if the other networks are running reruns, but with the cable landscape being as strong as it is, there are still too many alternatives to Leno.

None of this is meant to be a knock on Leno, by the way. Though I've never been a huge fan of him, I think he's in an unenviable position here. I don't think Letterman or Johnny Carson himself would be able to fare any better in Leno's circumstances.

R.I.P. LARRY GELBART: The great comedy writer, who co-created the TV version of "MASH" and wrote the movie "Tootsie," died Friday at 82. Gelbart was a giant among writers, and his singular wit will be missed.

MONDAY'S BEST BETS: Though the fall season has started, it doesn't really get into full swing until next week. Only The CW gets ahead of the curve with the season premieres of "One Tree Hill" and "Gossip Girl," beginning at 8 p.m.

Leno's new show will be preceded by two hours of "America's Got Talent" starting at 8 p.m.

It's a good week to refresh your memory of last spring's finales, including "House's" (Fox, 8 p.m.) two-hour thrill ride.

Cable is relatively light as well, save for ABC Family, which airs new episodes of "Lincoln Heights" and "Greek."