Ad Buyers Processing NBC Late Night Shift

Reactions to NBC’s move to finalize the passing of the Tonight baton in early 2014 from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon were still filtering in Wednesday. But at least one prominent buyer landed squarely in the negative column.

“I think it’s a bad move for NBC to do this now,” says Billie Gold, VP of research and programming at media agency Carat. “They should have waited till the primetime schedule was rebuilt. They’ve got a lot of holes to fill.” She added, “Advertisers see a lot of turmoil at NBC right now. It’s the wrong time to shake things up.”

Gold said the late night announcement came just after NBC held a pre-upfront development meeting for media buyers. NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt didn’t mention the change during the meeting. “Not a word,” Gold said. “You would think if they were proud of this, it would have come up.”

Another buyer, David Campanelli, senior VP, director of national television at Horizon Media, says NBC was reacting to realities in the TV business.

“I think it’s easy to say that NBC is making the same mistake as last time with Leno and Conan,” Campanelli said. “But the reality is the late night landscape continues to change. Success is not simply measured in nightly ratings alone. The digital viability of a show, for both buzz and sell-able assets can make a show a success based on different metrics than historically measured.”

Campanelli says the Fallon announcement will make buying the Tonight show a challenge. “We [buyers] will need to factor our projects for Fallon’s success into our upfront buying decisions,” he says. “I would assume NBC will sell a Tonight show ratings estimate for the year regardless of host. But more than likely, Fallon well end up with a lower rating once things settle in post Olympics push. That will likely lead to some under-delivery issues, further tightening the day part for NBC.”

Linda Yaccarino, president for ad sales at NBCUniversal, sees opportunities in selling a victory lap for Leno. “We will be able to do a lot of exciting things.” Yaccarino said. She said reaction to Fallon hosting Tonight has been enthusiastic, and that Jay will “pass the torch as No. 1, just as it was passed to him.”

Late night, increasingly, is a trophy asset and not a profit center, certainly compared with the days when Johnny Carson drew tens of millions of viewers a night. According to data from Kantar Media, ad revenue for Tonight has fallen from $255 million in 2007 to $146 million in 2012. Even so, the stability and brand pedigree of late night franchises against a backdrop of constant change in the television business continue to make them desirable properties for media companies.

Gold says she understands why NBC wants to make this change. “They want to reach a new generation of 18 to 49 year olds,” she said. “But Leno wins the time period, and I don’t know if Fallon will be able to beat [ABC’s] Jimmy Kimmel.”

As ratings across the broadcast spectrum keep ebbing, more advertisers might start looking at cable. “For advertisers looking at 18 to 49, there are now more choices,” Gold says.

Campanelli says many of the late-night broadcast viewers have moved to cable. “Not only to shows like Conan and Daily Show/Colbert, but also to a network like Adult Swim, which secures significant adult 18 to 49 ratings each night in the late night hours.”

The late night time period as a whole, including broadcast and cable, “is still a very valuable daypart,” Campanelli says. “However the days of buying only the three networks are long gone. A holistic buying approach needs to be applied to reach the full potential of the daypart.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.