Affiliates' 'Leno' Optimism Flagging

NBC affiliates still love Jay Leno; it's Jay Leno they're not so wild about. Both the network and numerous affiliates have been considering the long-term perspective on whether Leno's 10 p.m. show is a dud. With the metered markets having November sweeps results in hand, the picture got a lot clearer for dozens of stations that count on The Jay Leno Show to send viewers to their late news.

November's results were “a little scary” for KVBC Las Vegas General Manager Lisa Howfield, who saw the station's 10-to-11 p.m. hour drop from a 6.4 household rating and 10 share last November to a 3.3 rating/5 share—a 48.4% free fall. The Sunbelt Communications-owned station had a happier tale to tell in late news, which only fell 11.6% year-over-year.

“We remain hopeful that it will get better,” Howfield says. “But we'd sure like to have a few of those ratings points back.”

Howfield sums up what many general managers at NBC stations around the country are feeling: They remain fond of the host, but are having an increasingly difficult time driving viewers to late news—and the late-night network programs—with the numbers Leno is delivering.

Some are wondering if and when NBC will pull the plug on Leno. “I think the experiment hasn't worked,” says Post-Newsweek Stations President/CEO Alan Frank, who oversees a pair of NBC outlets. “The handwriting is on the wall—the only question is what [NBC] is going to do about it.”

In a statement, NBC says the show is “performing exactly as we expected it to on the network,” and showing stronger numbers when the competition is in reruns. “At the same time, we are also aware that the show may not be achieving acceptable levels for our affiliate stations,” it concludes, “and we continue to look at ways to improve.”

The affiliates say there's ample room for improvement. B&C asked a dozen managers at NBC affiliates to give a letter grade, with A the top of the charts and F a failing mark, for Leno on content alone. The grades averaged out to a C, with station managers citing low-wattage guests, a format too similar to The Tonight Show and a lack of energy. One GM is waiting for Jay to grab a headline news story, such as Tiger Woods' parade of paramours, and own it with a signature bit, as Jay did with his Dancing Itos skit during the O.J. Simpson trial in the early days of his Tonight Show tenure.

“He's got to find a water-cooler event and just knock a home run,” the GM says.

But when asked to grade Leno as a late-news lead-in—a focus of the NBC affiliates board prior to the show's launch—the marks were Ds and Fs. One general manager suggested a WTF?—electronic shorthand for a shocking situation.

While dozens of NBC affiliates remain market leaders despite their most recent primetime setbacks, the competition is, in numerous cases, making up ground. WPRI Providence, for one, celebrated its first late-news win since 1993, taking the title from longtime leader WJAR. The CBS affiliate grew its late-news household ratings 20% in November, says President/General Manager Jay Howell, while NBC affiliate WJAR reported a 33% ratings drop.

Howell credits a number of factors in the turnaround, including his staffers' performance, CBS' prime, layoffs at WJAR and, of course, NBC's struggling rookie at 10. “We've been on a long-term growth trend since we became part of LIN TV,” he says, “but Leno definitely helped accelerate it.” (WJAR VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville conceded that a 50% lead-in decline took a big bite out of WJAR's late news.)

The same story line is playing out in other parts of the country, with CBS affiliates in particular benefiting from the network's string of hits at 10 p.m., such as The Mentalist and The Good Wife. WBNS Columbus, for one, gained two household share points in late news, while NBC affiliate WCMH lost three (see Market Eye, p. 18). WCCO Minneapolis was up 20% November to November at 9 p.m. (Leno's time slot in the market), while NBC affiliate KARE slid 44%. WCCO was also the only station in the market to gain in late news (8%), while KARE dropped 25%.

“It's staggering,” says WCCO VP/General Manager Susan Adams Loyd. “I've never seen a loss like that with KARE.” (KARE did not return a call for comment.)

NBC affiliates continue to root for Leno because they appreciate the host's tireless efforts on their behalf, and they simply need more eyeballs in primetime to maximize promos. Many general managers say the network has been receptive to their concerns, and that other network properties—such as Today and Nightly News—are the best around.

But each subsequent sweeps with low Leno marks will continue to fuel talk about how long NBC will stick with the show. “Maybe this is the hard work before the reward,” says WAVE Louisville Regional VP Steve Langford, “or perhaps NBC needs to change things.”

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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.