CBS Affils Want 10 P.M. Dramas to Fill Out Hour

Prime thriving, but GMs say late news still suffers from lead-ins that end early
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General managers of CBS affiliates frequently say it's a good time to be a CBS station. Primetime is thriving, particularly the 10 p.m. dramas, which are gaining ratings points against fewer scripted shows in that hour. But GMs wish those dramas ran a few minutes longer, to seamlessly serve up viewers to their stations' late news.

At the annual CBS affiliates meeting in May, the station executives voiced their concerns to the network about the 10 p.m. shows ending well before 11, pushing CBS for less cluttered lead-ins to late news this fall. But as the new season progresses, it seems their complaints have gone unheeded.

A 10 p.m. drama on CBS may end two or three minutes short of 11. While the subsequent gap features a late-news tease, it also has an array of spots, credits, scenes from next week's episode and a plug for The Late Show before local news rolls. With viewers increasingly watching TV with a laptop or iPhone nearby, there's mounting anxiety that they will tune out during the minutes-long gap between primetime programming and local news in favor of their digital devices.

“The affiliates have charged us with having a more productive discussion on this front,” says CBS affiliates board chairman Tim Busch. “We've met with the network to discuss ways to work together about having more seamlessness leading in to late news.”

Busch says it's an “ongoing discussion” with CBS, but the network has indicated it's tiring of the chat. Diana Wilkin, CBS' affiliate relations president, declined an interview request, and a CBS spokesperson issued a statement that read: “We provide our affiliates with the most popular programming found on television during the 10 p.m. hour…This winning formula benefits our affiliates; we have no plans to change it.”

CBS' prime is indeed booming; stalwarts like the CSI franchise and The Mentalist continue to score, and newcomer The Good Wife drew 12.8 million viewers Oct. 13. A CBS spokesperson says the network's 10 p.m. performance has led to a 15% ratings increase in late local news, compared to last fall, for affiliates in Local People Meter markets.

Looking at leno

While no clear-thinking CBS general manager would trade his primetime for NBC's (see sidebar), Jay Leno's dogged work with NBC affiliates on maximizing viewership coming out of his rookie strip has some CBS affiliates wishing their network showed them the same degree of effort. One night last week, WNBC New York showed Leno ending his program with an emphatic “your late news starts right now!” immediately followed by the local anchors trumpeting WNBC's three top news stories—all between 10:59 and 11.

“CBS provides us with the strongest lead-in in our market,” says Tim Perry, president/general manager of KOIN Portland, Ore. “But we still have quite a bit of opportunity for transition as we go into late news.”

The lead-in issue has come up at all the networks over the years, though the others appear to have resolved differences with affiliates. NBC affils are elated with Leno's attention to their late news. A general manager at a major-market ABC affiliate says that network “has absolutely done a good job” of tightening the gap between primetime and late news, while a member of the Fox affiliates board says, “We bitched, they fixed it.”

CBS affiliates say a number of solutions could be applied to the lull before local news, such as adding another commercial pod in the middle of the programs, or by airing a split-screen at the end, with credits sharing the screen with local talent. “How we get there, I really don't care,” says CBS affiliates board treasurer Kirk Black. “We just want to continue to have an open door for discussions regarding the amount of non-content clutter before the late news.”

Affiliates are increasingly concerned that such a programming gap offers the viewer an opportunity not only to change the channel, but change the device altogether. “People watch television with another appliance in hand,” says KOIN's Perry. “You want to flow an audience as expeditiously as you can, and it'd be great if we had a little [grasp] on the audience so we could transition them forward.”

The affiliates produced a study from Frank N. Magid Associates at the May meeting that broke down exactly what the networks air in the 10-11 hour. General managers who saw it said ABC and NBC were content-rich in the last 10 minutes; CBS, one says, was “a train wreck” of spots, credits and teasers. CBS countered with its own research about the network's effectiveness in driving viewers to late news, and the two parties left at an impasse. (CBS, of course, has ample skin in the local news game, with 14 O&Os.)

Late news lead-ins may not be top of the agenda for an affiliates board that's gravely concerned about market modification and the long-term viability of the network-affiliate relationship. But it remains a sticky matter. “It's one of the priorities the affiliates have charged the board with, and the board has charged me with,” Busch says. “Though I do believe [CBS] would like us to stop talking about it.”

E-mail comments tomichael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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