In Depth

Sign Off by Tom Petner: Preparing for Life With Leno

Comedy is big news this season, particularly in September, when NBC will go from dark and bloody to light and funny—dropping Jay Leno into the 10 p.m. slot traditionally reserved for scripted drama.

It’s a move, however, that is no laughing matter for NBC affiliates, possibly altering the viewing landscape forever.

Many local NBC managers are hoping for—but not banking on—a big Leno lead-in.
But others say they’re concerned Leno will hurt their late newscasts. The worst-case scenario: Viewers watch Jay’s monologue, check out the guests, and then it’s sayonara. It’s off to bed, or a quick switch to a Fox station for a news/weather fix.

Meanwhile, managers at rival CBS stations are champing at the bit. They can’t wait for the new season of “CSI.” Talk to CBS affiliate news directors and you hear one word repeated often: opportunity. It’s the same with folks at ABC and Fox stations; they’re highly anticipating the halo effect of new programming.

Getting a local news director on the phone or reaching one by e-mail is pretty easy. Getting one to go on the record is another story. So I took an informal survey of news directors, GMs and other interested parties—some of whom requested anonymity—to get their opinion of the impact Leno will have on late local newscasts. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:

TV and Web marketing consultant Graeme Newell from 602 Communications:

By their very nature, these types of late-night talk shows are designed for casual surfing … that means I watch the top of the show and then I'm gone. My recommendation [to our NBC station clients] is the promo team creates an in-show promo that masterfully teases tomorrow night's show. We also need to do more in-story marketing on the big stories that will continue from day to day.

Jim Willi, senior VP at Dallas-based local media strategy company AR&D:

 They waited to introduce Leno only a week before the other networks launch their season. It would have helped Leno and stations if there was more time to develop Leno’s audience against reruns.
No matter the Leno number, even the best lead-in won’t guarantee NBC stations numbers for their newscasts. Fox learned the hard way with ‘Idol’ that it wasn’t easy to carry viewers into their newscasts. If [NBC stations] try to alter their newscasts to an entertainment material—softer materials—at 11 p.m. I think that’s suicidal.

Dennis Kendall, director of broadcast news for Quincy Newspapers Inc. (owner of NBC and Fox stations):

[Our NBC stations will] be taking advantage of every topical opportunity Leno will be providing and treating them effectively as a news-in-progress update to insure they’re fresh. Further, we’ll beef up topical promotion in the prior hour in an effort to make an impression on those who’ll surf away.
[We are not planning to shift our 11 p.m. coverage strategy] at this point. NBC’s research about audience flow from Leno seems sound, but until the public is viewing the actual show we won’t really know. We’ll call that one in progress.One of our Fox stations does an hour [of news] in that time period. We’ve already looked at their format to make certain we are in solid content each time Leno goes to break—the time surfing will most likely occur.

Lyle Schulze, GM of KMIR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Palm Springs, Calif.:

KMIR has a consistent record of over-indexing on NBC programming; this should bode well for Jay here. Leno and “The Tonight Show” is an institutional brand. The insertion of Leno at 10 p.m. ultimately gives us a promotional leg up for our 11 p.m. show.

A (Central Time Zone) CBS station news director:

I honestly think this is an opportunity. There’s no real interest—judging from the research—in a 9 p.m. [Central] variety show. I don’t think Leno will help or hurt us. I think it will most likely benefit Fox … the audience will sample the first few minutes of Leno and then go to Fox for a recap and off to bed. We’re hoping to get viewers to watch our late news just one more time.

An East Coast ABC station news director:

We will assume Leno will be a pattern disruption for viewers. We need to do more direct teasing to stories in our 11 p.m., particularly prior to 10 p.m. We see it as a potential opportunity for our 11 p.m., as our best thinking (or maybe it’s wishful thinking) is that Leno at 10 p.m. may have the same viewer retention challenge as his show at 11:35 p.m. did. One thing I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about—that we are considering—is the potential opening for a 10:30 p.m. news presence. If Leno shows any inability to carry his audience through the hour, we would have to take a look at moving our 10 p.m. [duopoly newscast] down to 10:30 p.m.

In a few weeks local station managers will know if Leno’s comedy has a punch line for local newscasts – ratings. Don’t bank on it.