NBC Affiliates OK on 'Jay' So Far

Station execs say a few tweaks to Leno may help stave off big ratings dip

While a far sharper picture of the rookie Jay Leno Show's popularity will emerge in the coming weeks, most NBC affiliates are pleased by its start. They acknowledge that the 10 p.m. program is very much a work in progress, but many believe that a few tweaks to the format will bolster their primetime performance—and serve up more viewers to their vital late newscasts.

“I thought the show was true to what it said it would be,” says WDIV Detroit VP/General Manager Marla Drutz, whose station doubled the nearest competitor in primetime households during Leno's first week. “Jay is a very funny individual, and the show will get better as time goes on and they see which franchise [segments] work.”

As expected, Leno opened to huge numbers, a result of a ubiquitous marketing campaign by NBC, the host's wide appeal, competition consisting mainly of repeats, and curiosity about how the longtime late-night star would approach his new primetime assignment.

But since the opening nights, the drop-off has been notable, too; Leno had 18.4 million viewers for the show's Sept. 14 debut, but 5.7 million a week later as big-draw scripted competition like CSI: Miami had their season premieres. NBC has announced modest goals for Leno, and NBC affiliates—long accustomed to getting by without much of a lead-in to their lucrative late newscasts—are managing their expectations as well.

'A marathon, not a sprint'

“The focus of this show is that it's a marathon, not a sprint,” says WIS Columbia, S.C., VP/General Manager Donita Todd, echoing the NBC company line. “It's a 52-week platform, and [Leno's] success is measured on how it does over the course of a year.”

Leno himself enjoys abundant goodwill among NBC affiliates, thanks to face-to-face relationships with station personnel that he's fostered over the years. The NBC affiliates board had unprecedented input in the show, fighting for local ad inventory, local promotional windows and even a say in program content.

NBC general managers said some aspects of Leno had them roaring, while other bits fell flat—certainly not out of the ordinary for a program in its infancy. Affiliates board chairman Michael Fiorile says reaction was “mixed.” “Some like it, and some would like to see changes,” he says. “It's early on, and a lot will change as the network fine-tunes the show.”

General managers seem to like Leno's monologue, loved guests like Jerry Seinfeld and Kanye West, were lukewarm on guests like Michael Moore, and felt some of the comedy bits were clunkers. “Like any comedy, some parts were funny and some parts made you wince more than laugh,” says WJAR Providence VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville. “But it's very easy to watch.”

Several station chiefs appreciate the effort Leno makes to serve viewers up for local late news. “He was telling jokes right until then end, then, 'That's our show—here's your local news,'” says WSMV Nashville VP/General Manager Elden Hale of a recent night. “You didn't have time to reach for the remote.”

That keep-'em-hooked strategy is paying off for many NBC affiliates. WDIV, for one, posted an 11.7 household rating/22 share for its late news the week of Sept. 14—a significant boost over the 8.2 rating/16 share it averaged in September 2008. Moreover, Leno's 11.8 rating/20 share that first week at 10 was a major improvement for the time slot; a rare 10 p.m. ratings deliverer like Law and Order: SVU did a 9.5/14 on WDIV in May.

While the show stands to grab viewers from 10 p.m. newscasts around the country—Detroit Fox outlet WJBK dropped a ratings point at 10 p.m. in the above September-to-September comparison—some believe it's the scripted dramas that will be affected the most. Hale hears anecdotal evidence that a number of viewers are giving up on some crime dramas that they see as long in the tooth in favor of the new comedy. WFXT Boston VP/General Manager Gregg Kelley says ratings for his Fox outlet's 10 p.m. news stayed consistent during Leno's first week, compared to when it was against previous NBC offerings at 10.

“It appears the numbers they've generated have come more at the expense of other network dramas,” he says, while acknowledging it's too early to read into trends.

Indeed, time will tell what sort of drop-off awaits Leno in the coming weeks. But general managers say the show is popular with advertisers, easy to “graze” for peripatetic viewers and, of course, fresh for a full 46 weeks.

Many have some degree of emotional investment in the wisecracking host. “A lot of us hope this is successful,” says WAVE Louisville Regional VP/General Manager Steve Langford, “because of the kind of guy Jay is.”

E-mail comments tomichael.malone@reedbusiness.com