By Jon Lafayette
News that NBC is moving Jay Leno back to 11:35 p.m. is good news for affiliates, whose late newscasts generally suffered during the network’s 10 p.m. experiment with the talk show in prime time.
“I would say we are thankful that NBC looked at it and reacted as quickly as they have,” said Ray Heacox, president and general manager of KING-TV, the NBC affiliate in Seattle.
KING’s late news eked out a narrow win in key demographic ratings during the November sweeps, despite drops on a percentage basis in the mid-teens. It lost the household ratings race for the first time in ages, Heacox said.
“It was not our normal late-night performance,” he said.
KING was hardly alone. A study by Harmelin Media found that in over 210 TV markets, NBC affiliates averaged a 25 percent drop in ratings, thanks mostly to the jaw-dropping ratings of “The Jay Leno Show.”
The ratings decline cost NBC affiliates $22 million per quarter, according to Harmelin. Among the biggest losers: NBC’s owned and operated stations in the biggest markets.
When plans to air Leno in prime time emerged, one NBC affiliate, WHDH-TV in Boston, wanted to air a newscast at 10 p.m. rather than Leno, but backed down when the network played hardball.
“I’m glad it’s over,’’ said Ed Ansin, president of station owner Sunbeam Television, according to the Boston Globe. “It’s an experiment, and it didn’t work.”
Other affiliates were less vocal in public but made sure the network was aware of the effect Leno was having on local ratings, particularly on local newscasts.
“We kept them informed regularly, but at the same time we understood that there were risks going into this experiment,” Heacox said. “We were one of those who reserved judgment until we actually saw what happened.”
Of course there are some markets where the Leno show performed well.
“I heard Leno did real well, actually, in the Midwest and not as well on the Coasts,” said Dale Woods, president and general manager of WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa.
During the November sweeps Leno registered ratings in the 4 to 5 range among adults 18-49, and WHO’s newscast closed the gap between it and No. 1 ranked KCCI-TV.
While lead-ins are important, Woods said the newscast rose mainly because of the station’s own efforts.
“Was it Jay Leno or is our late news up because it’s a better product?” asked Woods. “I think our late news is up because it’s a better product. More people are tuning in to watch our late news.”
Leno’s performance didn’t appear to have a damaging effect on the late news at KSEE-TV in Fresno, Calif., according to president and general manager Matt Rosenfeld.
“Our anecdotal sense is that it has not had the impact that we have heard it’s had about the country,” Rosenfeld said.
KSEE does not subscribe to Nielsen, and Rosenfeld said his sense is based on the station’s sales in the late news time period. The station ranked No. 2 at 11 p.m. last May, when it got Nielsen data, and in November, the local paper reported that KSEE remained in second place behind ABC-owned KFSN-TV.
That said, Rosenfeld said he was sure Leno had some effect and he’s glad NBC is making changes.
“I think that like probably every other NBC affiliate in the country, we’re excited to have positive PR about the 10 to 11 p.m. time period,” he said.
Affiliates expect to do well in the first quarter, when NBC will air coverage of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, B.C.
“The Olympics will be great for all NBC stations across the country. It’s just a wonderful platform to market your program and showcase the great job that the network does,” said WHO’s Long.
After the Olympics it’s unclear what NBC’s prime-time schedule will look like, but affiliates are counting on improvements.
“I know that they’re working hard, and the long-term answer to the question is scripted dramas at 10 o’clock is clearly where they have to head, along with some ‘Dateline,’” said Heacox.
Heacox said he’s encouraged by the number of pilots NBC already has in production. “We’re not going to have a multiyear problem as a result of this. It will be a much shorter time to get to some reasonable health,” he said.
While NBC’s late-night drama might have caused sleepless nights for its affiliates, the end game at least provided some comic relief as it became fodder for monologues, and sometimes the newscasts themselves.
“We’re covering the facts versus every blow by blow,” as the late-night saga unfolds, said Rosenfeld.