Last week, Gray Television’s Bob Prather said publicly what a lot of broadcasters at NBC affliates are thinking: NBC’s experiment with Jay Leno at 10 o’clock is a bust and is costing them viewers not only in the late news, but in the next day’s morning news. Stations in metered markets are already feeling the pain. Those in diary markets are not looking forward to unwrapping the November diaries.
It doesn’t take a PhD in Nielsen studies to know Jay Leno’s show is failing in many metered markets. His ratings punch line is a flop at 10 o’clock and he’s killing the NBC affiliates’ late newscasts in those markets. And, don’t look now, but the so-called Leno effect is rippling through into the morning newscasts. The TV set goes on in the a.m., where it was turned off in the p.m.
If you’re a news director at an NBC affiliate in a metered market, you feel the ratings pain every day. If you’re in a diary market, you have to wait until mid-December to unwrap your holiday Nielsen gift and learn what collateral damage Leno has done to your newscasts.
Talk to GMs and news directors at NBC affiliates or their group managers and the frustration you hear is palpable and sometimes turns to anger. But they don’t dare call out NBC on its decision to hang with the Leno primetime experiment. Would you?
Look at the public thrashing Ed Ansin took when he tried to opt out of Leno and do a 10 p.m. newscast at his Boston station, WHDH. Threats to yank network programming will get an owner’s attention.
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.
One brave soul and group operator expressed his feelings last week in a conference call with securities analysts. “The Leno experiment is not working so far,” said Bob Prather, COO of Gray Television, which operates 10 NBC affiliates.
“It’s definitely hurting the lead in to the 10 o’clock/11 o’clock news in some of our markets. I’m sure they’ll stick with it longer than they need to….Their ego won’t let them probably get rid of it soon enough.”
But Prather is the exception. To get others to talk, you have to promise anonymity.
On news director in the South told me, “I’m up about 30 percent at four, five and six and then at 11 I’m down and in the morning I’m down. It’s hurting my late news and it’s hurting the next day.”
How much it is hurting? “It’s 10 percent and sometimes it’s 15 percent,” he said.
Another news director told me his late news was down 17 percent in the key demo, adults 25-54, October to November. “And in the morning, we’re down about 20 percent at six a.m. in October and November,” he said. “It’s getting worse.”
Remember, the morning newscasts are key moneymakers for most local television stations.
“You now have long-standing stations that have been pillars of being No. 1,” said a news executive. “They’re no longer No. 1.
“You have 200 affiliates who are going to take it on the chin not only on their late news, but how it backflows and affects their morning news,” he said. “At some point, someone has to say the experiment didn’t work.”
NBC can, of course, spin it, put lipstick on the numbers and point to markets that are bucking the trend like Detroit.
Mekeisha Madden Toby at the Free Press reported that Post-Newsweek’s WDIV managed to grow the ratings (8.8 to 9.5) of its late news during Leno’s first month on the air. “It’s about the content and the personalities we have,” GM Marla Drutz told Toby.
Indeed, there is a school of thought that NBC affiliate newscasts should be able to stand on their own and that affiliates should stop the whining.
One West Coast GM in a diary market, whose station generally over-indexes the NBC lead-in, says, “You should be able to stand on your own without a strong lead-in every night.”
But he acknowledges that, if he were a GM in a metered market, he would probably have a different perspective.
“They couldn’t be doing more for an NBC affiliate than they are to promote your local news,” the GM said. “I don’t see any other network show at 10 o’clock allowing you a 30-second live window for promotion of your news. And there’s built-in promotion in the show for your news.”
Clearly a strong defender of NBC and Leno, this GM thinks, “The death of The Jay Leno Show has been greatly exaggerated. That’s something that the media has latched onto.
“It’s a huge leap of faith to put a show like this on in primetime. But bottom line is, let’s see what this show is doing up against repeats of dramas. They only produce 22 dramas. The year, the last time I looked, is 52 weeks, so that leaves 30 weeks for NBC to show its real true teeth here.”
Okay, but the reality is that lead-in does affect audience flow into the newscasts and into the next-day’s morning news.
One news executive will be holding NBC to a higher standard than most.
“If they compare, for example, November ’09 Leno numbers to primetime in May or February of ’09, they’re comparing it to numbers that are already down by half,” he said.
So he plans to go back two years and compare Leno to “how NBC is supposed to be, not how bad they’ve been.”
And if the station’s numbers hold for November, he is disinclined to credit Leno or NBC. “It will be because of our brand strength, and not anything to do with the network.”
Just before Christmas, everyone will be unwrapping the November books so it’s likely that the pressure on NBC will be unparalleled.
“Because the upcoming Olympics will be in a book that doesn’t count, basically that means we going to live with the November numbers until June, coming out of the May book,” says one broadcaster. “So these November numbers are really a big deal for us.”
So raise a glass and let the holiday cheer and speculation begin.
But keep in mind what one news executive told me, “everyone can play the ‘what if game,’ but, you know what, in a couple weeks it won’t matter, Comcast will own NBC.”
Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and former local TV news and Internet executive. Most recently, he was editor of the broadcast industry newsletter, ShopTalk, and director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University. His column, Air Check, is all about local TV news and appears every other Monday in TVNewsCheck. He invites comment and ideas. He can be reached at [email protected]