Comedy is big news this season, particularly in September, when NBC goes from dark and bloody to light and funny – dropping Jay Leno into the 10 p.m. prime slot traditionally reserved for scripted drama.
It’s a move, however, that’s no laughing matter for NBC affiliates and local news operations across the country. It could alter the viewing landscape forever.
Many local NBC managers are hoping for – but not banking on – a big Leno lead-in.
But others say they are concerned Leno will hurt their 11 p.m. 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 to pick up their quick news fix and weather before bed.
“By their very nature, these type of late-night talk shows are designed for casual surfing," marketing maven Graeme Newell of 602 Communications told me. "Dramas have a story plot line that carry you methodically through the hour and keep you glued to the set. For me, I am a big fan of [Leno's]monologue and the skits, but have little interest in the interviews. That means I watch the top of the show and then I’m gone.“
It’s that “and-then-I’m-gone” factor that has general managers and news directors at the rival stations champing at the bit. They’re looking for the upside in any Leno downside to grab new news viewers.
Talk to a CBS affiliate news director and you hear one word repeated often: opportunity. They can’t wait for the new season of CSI, and it’s the same with ABC and Fox station management, who are anticipating the halo effect of programs like “Lost” and “Idol.”
Timing can be everything, and it’s NBC’s timing that Jim Willi regrets. He’s Senior Vice President of Dallas-based consultants AR&D.
"They waited to introduce Leno only a week before the other networks launch their season," said Willi. "It would have helped Leno and the stations if there was more time to develop Leno’s audience against reruns."
So how do the local news directors feel about the timing, and Leno’s impact on their late newscasts?
Try getting a TV news director on the phone, or reaching one by email for a comment. It’s really pretty easy. But try getting one of them to go “on the record” about the Leno-factor. That’s an entirely different story.
Who could blame them in this environment of you’re here today, and gone tomorrow.
The universal email greeting these days is:
“Hey Tom, I’m here and I’ve got a job, for now…” You can read a lot of paranoia into those three dots.
There’s a lot of pressure on local news directors – and general managers – to figure out a strategy for one of the biggest decisions facing them in the fall: how to prepare for life with Leno.
Back in April, management of the NBC affiliate in Boston, WHDH, thought they had the perfect strategy – don’t run Leno, run news instead.
It was a very public on the record squabble between NBC and one of its largest affiliates. It involved some tough talk about the Leno change.
You had to love the ensuing headlines:
WHDH-TV snubs Leno as 10 p.m. program
Channel 7 opts for news battle, drawing NBC’s ire
NBC gives Boston station an ultimatum on Leno show
The media giant says it will yank all of its NBC programming from WHDH-TV if the station carries out its threat to ditch Leno.
But NBC persuasion apparently worked. Ed Ansin, owner of WHDH’s parent company, Sunbeam Television, backed down:
As the WSJ reported, "the resolution offers a display of NBC’s muscle as it faces talks with other affiliates on how to shape the show."
"While no other stations followed the Boston station’s lead in pulling support for the show, several large affiliates have been pushing NBC to compensate them in some way for moving Mr. Leno to primetime. The concern: If the show offers lower average viewership in the 10 p.m. hour, it could reduce the audience for 11 p.m. newscasts, where local stations count on significant ad revenue, even if its lower cost makes it more profitable for the network.”
Ansin and NBC execs did their behind-the-scenes handshake and WHDH went away quietly.
So, like or it not, in Boston and across the country, Leno is here. NBC Stations now have to deal with the reality of a Leno-factor leading into their late newscasts.
Okay, so now what?
To get some answers, I took an informal survey of news directors and GMs.
How will stations play it? What impact will Leno have on the late newscasts? How will viewers behave during and after Jay Leno?
Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
Lyle Schulze, VP & General Manager of the NBC station in Palm Springs, California:
"KMIR6 has a consistent record of over-indexing on NBC programming; this should bode well for Jay here. This is a huge benefit for NBC stations in that Jay Leno and the ‘Tonight Show’ is an institutional brand. ABC, CBS and FOX do not have anything that comes close. The insertion of Leno at 10pm ultimately gives us a promotional leg up for our 11pm show.“
Dennis Kendall, Director of Broadcast News for Quincy Newspapers Inc. (the group owns a half-dozen NBC stations):
“We’ll 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, uncertain about how Leno will fair, we’ll beef up our topical promotion in the prior hour in an effort to make an impression on those who’ll surf away.”
Are you planning to shift your coverage strategy inside those 11s?
“Not 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.”
Quincy also owns and operates Fox affiliates. Isn’t there a positive for Fox affiliate where you also have news?
“Absolutely. One of our Fox stations does an hour 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.”
Do you think Leno will help or hurt your late newscasts at the group’s stations?
“I’ll let the public decide that one but surely it can’t be any worse than NBC’s May performance in prime.”
One Midwest (Central Time Zone) news director – one of those CBS news directors champing at the bit – who sees his late newscast as appointment viewing:
“I honestly think this is an opportunity. It’s tough to sustain a variety show at 9pm. And there’s no real interest – judging from the research – in a 9pm variety show. I don’t think Leno will help or hurt us. I think it will most likely benefit the Fox station…the audience will sample the first few minutes of Leno and then go to Fox show for recap and off to bed. We’re just hoping to get viewers to watch our late news just one more time.”
n East Coast ABC station news director:
“Our position is that we will assume (until proven otherwise) that Leno will be a pattern disruption for viewers and thus we will need to do more direct teasing to stories in our 11pm, particularly prior to 10pm. We see it as a potential opportunity for our 11pm, as our best thinking (or maybe it’s wishful thinking) is that Leno at 10pm may have the same viewer retention challenge as his show at 11:35pm did.
"One thing that I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about – that we are considering – is the potential opening for a 10:30pm news presence.
"We currently produce a 10pm half-hour newscast for our MyTV9 duopoly station…if Leno shows any inability to carry his audience through the hour, we would have to take a look at moving our 10pm down to 10:30pm as an opportunity to catch viewers defecting early on Leno."
A West Coast ABC news director:
“Personally, I think 10pm Leno will hurt NBC’s late newscasts. I’m sure they’ll move heaven and earth to try to make those last 15 minutes really entertaining, but I think they’ll be fighting decades of viewing habits which dictate that talk shows peter out after the first half hour. Will that help us at CBS? Doubtful. I don’t really see people flipping over to catch the last half hour of our dramas at 10:40 or whatever. I think most Leno viewers will just go to bed once the monologue and first guest are done.”
If the consensus is that NBC stations are in danger of losing lead-in audience to switching and turn-off: What should stations do?
Graeme Newell at 602 Communications has some advice for the NBC stations:
“For those of us in the 11 o’clock news game, his show presents some gigantic challenges. Lead in is our biggest viewing driver. Without that, we are forced to rely on habit to get people to the newscast.
"What this means is that your in-show night-to-night marketing will be critical. Most newscasts still treat themselves as an island. The shows are not produced or marketed as a nightly habit. My recommendation is that the promo team create 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. That means reporters must craft marketing to embed within their stories that talks about how they will cover the continuing developments of that story, the next day."
Similar counsel is coming from the AR&D consultants. They’re feeding NBC clients ways to hope and cope with a Leno lead-in. Looming large, of course, is the local station challenge to hold the audience throughout the Leno hour and get viewers to their newscasts. As the AR&D playbook warns:
"Stations must be fully prepared in the first internal break to sell their news assets very effectively. They have to convince viewers to watch late news regardless of whether they continue to watch all of Leno or not. The break immediately following the number one celebrity guest is another significant opportunity and stations must seize it. Tune out is high during this part of the program, so stations must find ways to: Make a strong coverage promise about timely news (no repetition from earlier newscasts)."
Jim Willi, AR&D’s lead consultant on the Leno project said, no matter the Leno numbers, "even the best lead-in won’t guarantee NBC stations sure-fire numbers." Willi recalls how “Fox learned the hard way with ‘Idol’ that it’s not easy to carry viewers into your newscasts.”
The one big mistake the NBC stations can make, Willi says,"if they (the NBC stations) try to alter their newscasts to entertainment material – softer materials at 11p.m…I think that’s suicidal.”
So, come September, local station managers will know if Leno’s comedy can deliver a punch line to their local newscasts – ratings.
I wouldn’t bank on it.#