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For Now, NBC Affils Good as Gold

Deputy Editor Michael Malone goes deep inside the local TV scene. 3/11/2010 05:06:00 AM Eastern

After months of lamenting the weak
numbers Jay Leno’s primetime program
was serving up, general managers
at NBC affiliates around the country
are pleased with their Peacock partnership
once again. The Olympics, of course, delivered
blockbuster numbers, bolstered
by what numerous affiliate managers say
is NBC’s expert production of the Winter
Games. The March 1 return of Leno to his
old Tonight Show digs has also goosed NBC
stations’ primetime and late-night ratings.

“It feels really good to be back in pattern,
with Jay on after late news,” says WDIV
Detroit VP/General Manager Marla Drutz,
who runs one of the few stations where The
Jay Leno Show found an audience in primetime.
“These are the kinds of numbers we’ve
been hoping for. It’s a win-win-win”—in
terms of prime, late news and late night.

The Tonight Show did a 10.5 household
rating/25 share March 1 in Detroit, according
to Drutz, and its 4.4 rating in adults
25-54 walloped The Late Show With David
Letterman’s 1.4. Tonight stayed strong on
WDIV Tuesday with an 8.0 rating/20 share.

It was expected that Leno’s return to his
old job would result in a substantial ratings
bounce; a lineup of high-wattage guests that
included Sarah Palin and telegenic Olympic
medalists Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White and
Apolo Ohno added to the buzz. “The guests
exceeded my expectations,” says NBC affiliates chairman Michael Fiorile.

General managers say the
Tonight Show set fit Leno as
well as one of his trademark
denim shirts. “It just felt right,” says WCBD
Charleston, S.C., VP/General Manager Rick
Lipps. “It wasn’t awkward, it wasn’t weird,”
which was how many viewed Leno on his
primetime program.

The question, of course, is how long Leno
can sustain signifi cant interest in late night;
his 10 p.m. show also had a robust start before
ratings started their free fall. A ratings
reduction is inevitable, but Fiorile thinks Tonight
will stand tall for the long term—just
as it did before NBC blew up its schedule.
“If they maintain the guest list and the quality
of the show, I’m kind of optimistic Jay
will hold onto a lot of it,” he says.

While NBC affiliates adore network
mainstays like Today and NBC Nightly
News, primetime has been a well-publicized
ratings sinkhole for years. But putting
scripted shows back on at the tail end
of primetime after the Olympics wrapped
appears to be helping NBC affiliates get
their late-news mojo back. Several, such as WTHR Indianapolis and WPTV West Palm
Beach, are reclaiming late-news eminency
after surrendering the title in November
sweeps.

WTHR tallied an 8.1 household rating/16
share at 11 p.m. March 3, ahead of WISH’s
6.1 rating/12 share. WISH had won the Indianapolis
late news race in November.

“I hope the other affiliates are seeing the
same results we’re seeing from the [new]
schedule,” Fiorile says. (In addition to chairing
the affiliates board, Fiorile is president
of Dispatch Broadcast Group, which owns
WTHR.)

But putting dramas back on at 10 p.m. is
a reminder of the difficulty NBC has had
with that task. WHO Des Moines was another
anomaly where The Jay Leno Show
performed well; VP/General Manager Dale
Woods is simply hoping the replacements
can post a comparable number. “I’m very
concerned with how the regular prime programming
performs,” he says. “We’re going
back to the shows that didn’t work before.”

NBC affiliates are mostly encouraged by
the early look and performance of debutants
Parenthood and The Marriage Ref—the
former getting some praise from critics, the
latter taking some knocks. “NBC is putting
money behind quality scripted programs
with name performers and producers,” says
WHEC Rochester VP/General Manager
Arnold Klinsky. “They’re not
doing it on the cheap. We just
have to wait and see.”

Klinsky speaks for many NBC affiliates
when he says the future looks much brighter
than it did a few months ago. “Leno is back
to where he’s been successful, and life goes
on,” he says. “We were much better off
starting Monday than we’ve been for a long
time.”

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