NBC Affiliates Split on Jay Leno in Primetime

Some fear if Leno sinks in primetime, they'll drown with him

Affiliates seem split down the middle as to what NBC's move of Jay Leno to the nightly 10 p.m. slot means for their crucial late news ratings. While station chiefs were pleased to see NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker find a way to keep Leno in the family, some are concerned that the program will never see major ratings, and will lose substantial viewers toward the end of the hour. If that happens, their 11 p.m. newscasts will suffer.

“My [immediate] reaction is that no one's saying Leno will be a great program—everyone's saying how much expense NBC has saved,” says Belo Executive VP Peter Diaz, who oversees four NBC affiliates. “We have a wait-and-see attitude, but I'm certainly concerned about late news.”

The NBC affiliates board met in New York last week, and chairman Michael Fiorile described the affiliates as “cautiously optimistic” regarding the primetime overhaul. The primary concern is that last half-hour dropoff that's already documented on Leno's Tonight Show.

The new show's stickiness isn't their only concern. Some are anxious that NBC has, in the words of one general manager, put all of its eggs in one basket with Leno. Unlike a typical program that can be canned after a few weeks, Leno, according to attendees of the affiliates meeting, is locked into either a three- or five-year deal. (NBC would not confirm the length of Leno's contract for the primetime show.)

“It's not like they'll cancel it if it's not working,” says Post-Newsweek Stations President/CEO Alan Frank. “So they've just built a box that's very hard to get out of.”

Not 'Tonight'!

There was some unanimity that shoehorning a program too similar to the Tonight Show into an hour would be a disaster. “Jay's got great ability to draw star power,” says WKYC Cleveland President/General Manager Brooke Spectorsky, “but it can't just be guests dropping by to promote their book or movie.”

When Zucker and NBC Entertainment Co-chair Ben Silverman addressed the NBC Affiliates Board on Dec. 10 in lower Manhattan, both sides agreed to the unique arrangement that gives affiliates a say in how the show is created. A group of affiliate representatives—perhaps two or three—will work with the network to keep Leno's show a must-see TV program throughout its hour.

“There'll be a working group to help build the show with the network,” says Fiorile, who's also CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group. “We want to make sure the show is structured right so it builds up to 11 p.m. and people aren't going to bed on us.”

Many managers at affiliate stations say they learned of the Leno move just before the rest of the population, though they acknowledge that affiliate board members were in the loop throughout the process. Managers also lament trading a varied demographic mix coming out of the 10 p.m. slot—18-34 females for one program, 25-54 males for another—for what they see as a static group that watches Leno night after night.

“The different demos allowed you to promote to the surfers and get them to sample your brand,” says Scripps VP of Sales Brian Lawlor, who's on the NBC affiliates board. “We're going to have to work harder at other time periods to recruit people to late news.”

Managers voiced concerns that the Leno program would simply never be a ratings breakout. “I don't know what the plan is for the program, but I don't think Leno has the potential to drive ratings numbers like a CSI,” says KXAN Austin President/General Manager Eric Lassberg.

Of course, NBC has not come up with a CSI-level hit in some time.

Can Jay Slay the DVR?

Yet affiliates offer plenty of reasons to welcome Jay to prime. Foremost, they won't be up against him, which would have been the case had he signed with a rival network. Leno has always maintained extremely cordial relations with affiliates, and they describe the comedian as a well-respected workhorse who is seen as exceedingly advertiser-friendly.

Tom O'Brien, the general manager at NBC-owned WNBC New York, says the move has lots of upside for stations. “It's 46 weeks of original programming from the king of late-night,” he says. “It's topical, so hopefully it's less prone to DVRing.”

While that topicality might save Leno from the dreaded DVR, affiliates also hope the time-shifting of rival dramas at 10 will bring more viewers to NBC for Leno's humorous take on the day's events. “There's a great deal of upside if the show is handled right,” Spectorsky says. “It's very viable alternative programming.”

Station chiefs also like the idea of what they expect to be a consistent, if unspectacular, number leading into their late news, which typically represents 25% of a station's news revenue and as much as 10% of total revenue. “We shouldn't see significant fluctuations for the late news lead-in,” says WHO Des Moines Regional VP/General Manager Dale Woods. “I don't know if it will be a high consistent, a medium consistent or a low consistent, but I do believe the ratings will be consistent.”

Affiliates have for years complained about the weak lead-ins from NBC's underperforming prime. Many, such as WJAR Providence and KING Seattle, have thrived in local news by employing a fiercely independent streak that's less reliant on prime. Last week, several general managers suggested their peers quit second-guessing the suits at 30 Rock and concentrate on what they can control.

“Stations have to stop worrying about their lead-ins and make sure they have good standalone product,” says KVBC Las Vegas General Manager Lisa Howfield. “Pretend you've got a zero lead-in—what are you going to do to get people to watch your programming?”