In Depth

Leno's Hometown Station, WHDH, Pushes Back

Jay Leno’s hometown station says it won’t carry his new 10 p.m. show in primetime, a move that’s sparked an angry response from NBC.

WHDH in Boston Thursday said that it will air a primetime newscast at 10 p.m. this fall rather than Mr. Leno’s new show. It announced the decision via its Web site.

The decision prompted an immediate and scathing reaction from John Eck, president of the NBC Television Network.

“WHDH's move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC," Mr. Eck told the Boston Globe, which first reported the news. "If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation. We have a number of other strong options in the Boston market, including using our existing broadcast license to launch an NBC owned-and-operated station."

NBC’s strong reaction isn’t a surprise. The network can’t afford to let local stations get the impression that preempting Mr. Leno’s new show is a viable option.

Of course, it’s unlikely that most affiliates would attempt such a gutsy play anyway. Most affiliate agreements prohibit stations from opting to make such a wholesale preemption, particularly when content issues aren’t involved.

By refusing to run Mr. Leno’s show, WHDH is essentially nixing nearly 25% of NBC’s primetime lineup. Unless NBC convinces WHDH to change its mind, or finds another station to air Mr. Leno, Mr. Leno’s new show will begin life without a top 10 market, something that would adversely impact its ratings.

WHDH owner Ed Ansin of Sunbeam Television told the Globe that he was worried Mr. Leno wouldn’t perform well at 10 p.m.

"We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m. We don't think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime," Mr. Ansin said. "It will be detrimental to our 11 o'clock. It will be very adverse to our finances.”

He also said the move was “a better financial plan for us.” Indeed, WHDH gets to keep all the ad revenue from a 10 p.m. news, but only gets a fraction of it from Mr. Leno’s show.

While NBC blasted WHDH, Mr. Ansin claimed that he had the right to boycott Mr. Leno.

"We have a unique agreement with NBC, which is unlike the standard affiliate agreement,'' Ansin said. "We have the option of not airing Leno at 10 o'clock."

The executive said he offered to air Mr. Leno's show at 11 p.m., thus pushing “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” back to midnight. NBC dismissed that option, the Globe reported.

NBC will no doubt look to quickly squash the Boston rebellion. Many affiliates no would doubt love the option of airing news in primetime, as many Fox and CW stations do with much success.

But allowing any wiggle room could torpedo NBC’s carefully orchestrated plan to make Mr. Leno a primetime star and keep Mr. O’Brien happy in the lead-off late-night position.