During November sweeps, some TV station executives surely wish for a guardian angel to create a world in which low-rated Saturday-night newscasts never existed.
For some NBC O&Os, that wish came true this year. But it was no guardian angel that made it happen. It was NBC.
At the end of its Nov. 24 broadcast of It's a Wonderful Life, the network provided five of its owned stations a block of promos before the movie's closing credits. The block ran more than seven minutes—far enough past 11 p.m. that any of the stations were able to "retitle" their newscasts and thereby drop the traditionally low-rated shows from the November Nielsen ratings averages.
Affiliates were not happy. Reaction among them ranged from "really pissed off" about a possible double standard for owned and for affiliated stations to "awfully upset that we missed out on the chance to opt out" of Saturday-night ratings.
Nielsen was concerned. The ratings services said that its retitling rules exist to accommodate station interests when programs run late for reasons beyond their control: late-running sports events, breaking news, political messages. But the promos following Wonderful Life
raise the issue of whether a situation is truly out of a station's control when the programming decision is made by the network owner of the station, suggesting at least a conflict of interest. Nielsen said it may refer the issue to its Policy Guidelines Committee.
Five network stations aired the promo block. Viewers at WMAQ-TV Chicago, WCAU(TV) Philadelphia, KXAS-TV Dallas, WRC-TV Washington and KNSD(TV) San Diego watched as the network ran promos for Frasier, Law & Order, Crossing Jordan, Weakest Link, Fear Factor, Scrubs, Christmas in Rockefeller Center, Passions, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Late Night With Conan O'Brien
and the Olympics. Four out of the five stations—all but WMAQ-TV—retitled their newscasts.
Steve Doerr, senior vice president for news and programming at NBC's station group, said the point was not to allow retitling, but to promote the last few days of sweeps programming. NBC and Fox were in a close race for the 18-49 demo crown. "Retitling was not a factor. We wanted our stations to run a significant number of network promos when the whole family was sitting around the TV."
NBC noted that, in fact, it was its strongest Saturday night in weeks, albeit still below the household numbers of its powerful weeknight lineup. But, Doerr pointed out, "if the plan were to take a lousy Saturday night out of the average, we would have done it for the whole division."
The value of the promos, Doerr said, "outweighed the zig and the zag of household ratings."
Not everyone agrees. "It was a completely artificial manipulation of the ratings," said a GM of an NBC affiliate, although, he acknowledged, "it's legal."
On the Tuesday prior to the broadcast, NBC notified all its affiliates that the movie would run about 71/2 minutes past 11 p.m. That would have given all an opportunity to retitle their newcasts. But a day later, it changed its mind, telling affiliates that the movie would end on the hour.
Some affiliates suspect that NBC changed its mind after Nielsen started contacting affiliates about the overrun. The network may have been worried that it would be accused of manipulating the ratings, they said. NBC would not comment on the change, saying only that the overrun had been "resolved."