In Depth

Media Buyers Fairly Frosty on Prospects for Prime-Time Leno

NBC is touting Jay Leno's new prime-time program, which will make its debut Sept. 14, as an innovative, DVR-proof move, but buyers say the new talk show will draw fewer viewers than ABC and CBS on any given night, and are balking at paying prime-time prices for what they view as late-night ratings.

"He will guarantee NBC a third-place finish [behind ABC and CBS] in whatever hour he's in," said Shari Ann Brill, senior VP-director of strategic audience analysis for Aegis Group's Carat. "He will do on par with what he did in late night."

The projections come from media-buyer estimates of ratings for the 2009-2010 TV season compiled by Advertising Age.

Indeed, media buyers expect the new Leno program to generate a C3 household rating ranging between 3.0 and 4.9. Even unvested programs in the same time slot, including ABC's "The Forgotten" and CBS's "The Good Wife," are expected to do better.

NBC executives have acknowledged the "Leno" show is likely to get beat in the ratings by scripted dramas on ABC and CBS but have pointed out that the program is cheaper to produce and will be original throughout the year, meaning that it might be more attractive to viewers when rivals' dramas are in repeats. They also believe that a significant portion of its audience will watch it live rather than watching via DVR hours or days later, since the show will strive to be topical.

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Some buyers expect Mr. Leno's projected ratings to be the source of some contention during upfront negotiations. They warn that NBC will be challenged if it seeks prime-time rates for a show that is not expected to match the numbers of dramas airing elsewhere. To counter that, NBC is expected to get creative. NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios Co-chair Ben Silverman recently told Ad Age the network would consider offering the opportunity to have Mr. Leno do live commercials, which he suggested would potentially be worth a price increase.

Ad Age's survey is compiled by averaging fourth-quarter and first-quarter C3 household estimates from four major media agencies. C3, the shorthand term for commercial ratings, measures the number of viewers who actually watch commercials during a selected program, rather than changing channels or fast-forwarding past them with a digital video recorder. Since the start of the 2007-2008 TV season, advertisers have crafted transactions based on C3 ratings, which take into account the number of viewers who watch commercials during a program, rather than the traditional ratings for the program itself.

So what will we be watching next season on broadcast? More song-and-dance programs and crime procedurals, according to media buyers' ratings estimates.

Buyers expect ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" on Mondays and its Tuesday-night results show to capture the most households next season. They see the Monday show notching a 14.1 rating, while the subsequent results program is expected to garner a whopping 18.5. Other big winners include Fox's "American Idol" and its accompanying results program in the first quarter, expected to generate a 13.7 and a 14.8, respectively; CBS's "NCIS," expected to secure a 13.1; NBC's "Sunday Night Football," expected to generate a 12.6; CBS's "CSI,"expected to notch an 11.8; and CBS's "The Mentalist," expected to secure an 11.6.

Of the new shows expected to launch next season, buyers project the highest household ratings for CBS's "NCIS: Los Angeles," expected to garner a 12.2, and Fox's "Human Target," expected to spark a 7.

Younger competition

"Stars" and "Idol" are set to be joined by Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance," which could become a viable competitor, said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna. Fox's entry will skew younger than ABC's, so even though the shows will be on the same nights, "So You Think You Can Dance" has a shot and makes economic sense for Fox. "It's less expensive than trying to promote a new series out of the blue, which is probably not going to do as well as 'So You Think You Can Dance,'" Mr. Sternberg said.

There's another reason for the buyers' strong estimates for much of that category: "What they do is they back load the commercials during the higher-rated parts of the program. It's something 'American Idol' is famous for, where the C3 rating would outperform the live rating, because the commercials would be packaged in the latter half of the shows, and the ratings would go up when they have their reveals [of winners]," said Carat's Ms. Brill.

While singing and dancing are expected to keep many viewers' fingers off the fast-forward button, the same can be said for Sunday night. The evening contains not only NBC's weekly football broadcast but also Fox's animation block and strong performers such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and CBS's "60 Minutes."

Filed under: Jay Leno, Media Buyers, NBC