The November LPM numbers show more detail on Leno’s sinking ratings and negative impact on local newscasts since he debuted in the 10 o’clock slot in September. NBC hasn’t raised the white flag of surrender over 30 Rock just yet, although it is getting sold to Comcast. No matter how NBC wants to look at it, its grand primetime experiment is not working — at least not for the affiliates. Lousy lead-in numbers hammered NBC affils all over the country, turning the late news landscape upside down in November.
You might call it the fall classic — it being the November sweeps. Thankfully, it’s finally over. While Nielsen’s LPM system makes every day judgment day in the top markets, the sweeps playbook and mentality are still part of the drill for many stations.
November felt like an especially long sweeps month, particularly if you’re working at an NBC station. That’s likely due to Leno-fatigue from the flood of stories quarterbacking his sinking ratings and negative impact on local newscasts since he debuted in the 10 o’clock slot in September.
Frankly, I’m sick of the story. And I suspect readers are too. I have to confess I added more than my share to the Leno background noise, but, like it or not, NBC and Leno’s ratings-challenged program loom large in November. Every news director and consultant I contact ends up talking about it.
NBC hasn’t raised the white flag of surrender over 30 Rock just yet, although it is getting sold to Comcast. No matter how NBC wants to look at it, its grand primetime experiment is not working — at least not for the affiliates. Lousy lead-in numbers hammered NBC affils all over the country, turning the late news landscape upside down in November.
“Stations are learning that more than late news performance is at stake,” said Steve Ridge, president of Frank Magid’s Strategy Group. “The Leno effect is helping to reshape the overall competitive landscape in a number of markets, particularly in markets with soft station-specific loyalty. The impact is being felt in other dayparts — including the lucrative morning time period.”
Larry Rickel, president and CEO of Broadcast Image, said NBC affiliates that have historically done well “have fallen off the page either because they were paper tigers being propped up by lead-ins” or simply because the Leno effect was too much to overcome.
Many of the NBC news directors I spoke with told me their numbers are off by 10, 15 and 20 percent for their late newscasts. Several said they’ve also seen the ripple effect flow into their morning newscasts. One ND said his morning household and 25-54 demos are “off by more than 20 [expletive deleted] percent. That hurts in the wallet.”
If you whip across the country and check out the numbers, you’ll find that it’s hand-to-hand combat. Every household, every share of the demographics is a fight.
For traditional winners, it’s a challenge to overcome the Leno effect. The Hearst NBC affiliate in Baltimore, WBAL, is a good example. It has a long history as a winner — 31 straight wins at 11 o’clock — but this November, it felt the ill-effects of Leno presence, falling behind CBS O&O WJZ.
David Zurawik at the Baltimore Sun put it this way: “NBC’s ill-advised, cost-cutting move of Leno to a nightly 10 p.m. primetime spot continues to hammer WBAL’s fortunes for network fare at 10 p.m. and its late news at 11 p.m. WBAL, which used to be neck-and-neck with WJZ at the 11 p.m. newscast, an affiliate’s most lucrative, is now a distant second to the CBS-owned station.”
It’s interesting to note that WBAL’s 11 p.m. newscast increased share from the Leno lead 74.1 percent in households and 36.2 percent among adults 25-54. So, while WBAL avoided the full impact of the Leno trend, it wasn’t enough to win the late news.
“Yes, we were in second place at 11 p.m.,” WBAL ND Michelle Butt acknowledged. “We won the 6 a.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. so the product is obviously not a problem. Is coming in second at 11 p.m. disappointing? Absolutely. However, I like our success. Being appointment television is a great spot to be in.”
BTW, don’t feel too bad for WBAL. Things are getting worse for Scripps’ WMAR. Despite a summer goose from the introduction of LPMs, WMAR continues to sink in the numbers. Again, as Zurawik pointed out, “WMAR finds itself as the last place news channel in Baltimore behind WBFF by virtually every measure.”
One of the biggest losers in the lead-in game comes out of Chicago. NBC O&O WMAQ fell to third place with 4.4 household rating for the month. CBS competitor WBBM’s lead-in was up 40 percent from a year ago, which help propel its 10 p.m. newscast to second with a 5.8 rating. The Chicago powerhouse at 10 continues to be ABC O&O WLS, which clocked a 10.5 finish for the month.
It’s the same sad story at another of the NBC O&Os. In Philadelphia, the numbers showed WCAU’s newscast at 11 o’clock dropping like a rock to third place, down 47 percent. And like Chicago, the happy campers are over at the ABC station, WPVI, which cleaned up across the board.
In Providence, R.I., CBS affiliate WPRI pushed aside WJAR, the NBC affiliate, to take the lead at 11 p.m. after 16 years. Ted Nesi at the Providence Business News reported that WJAR’s ratings plunged 35 percent.
But Jay Howell, WPRI’s general manager, disputed the idea that his win was due to the Leno effect. WPRI has maintained the size of its news staff while other stations were downsizing and it worked hard to get headline-grabbing stories. The station also ran a multimedia ad campaign on sites such as Boston.com to encourage viewers to tune in.
The NBC affiliate in Milwaukee took it in the chin, losing the 10 p.m. race to the Hearst’s ABC affiliate, WISN. As Duane Dudek at the Journal Sentinel put it: “The sucking sound made by Jay Leno’s 9 p.m. show is getting louder at WTMJ.” While the newscast built on Leno, it wasn’t enough to overcome WISN’s Monday-Friday average of 8.1
While many NBC stations suffered from the soft Leno numbers, a few ballyhooed their newscast’s ability to overcome the lead-in deficit for a win. Among them is NBC’s Washington O&O. WRC dominated every news slot, including 11 p.m.
An interesting sidebar story to the D.C. numbers was WJLA’s full frontal approach to the news. Well, it wasn’t exactly full frontal, but it was bare-breasted and it generated a lot of sweeps attention and discussion.
As many of you have seen or likely heard, the Allbritton ABC affiliate grabbed a ton of attention with its series of reports on breast cancer featuring women performing self-exams with their breasts fully exposed.
As station manager Bill Lord told the Washington Post, “the breast-exam story gave us a little bump [in viewing] the first day” of the two-day report. “We considered it a significant breakthrough in breast-cancer coverage. We were extremely pleased by the positive feedback we got from the audience both for selecting the topic and for the way we handled it.”
But as one news director in the market told me, “WJLA did the most blatant sweeps stunt ever, breast cancer checks showing a naked woman, who happened to be in her 20s, not 50s. Hey, they were just trying to save lives.”
Other NBC affiliates that prospered despite Leno include Bonneville’s KSL Salt Lake City and Post-Newsweek’s WDIV Detroit. The latter blew past its competition and dominated the numbers at 11 o’clock. WDIV says its 11 p.m. newscast was the top late newscast of all NBC affiliates in the top 20 markets nationwide.
Broadcast Image’s Larry Rickel attributes WDIV’s win to “smart programming and compelling marketing.”
So, there you go, the ratings beat (and beatings) go on as the results come in and the November book fades away. In a couple weeks those of you in diary markets can look forward to unwrapping the November book.
Perhaps NBC management, as they sort out the regulatory issues and segues to Comcast ownership, will get the message that something has to be done soon to stop hemorrhaging and declare the primetime experiment over.