For Now, NBC Affils Good as Gold

Deputy Editor Michael Malone goes deep inside the local TV scene.

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.”