NBC's Low-Cost Leno Strategy: Affiliates May Pay the Price

Jay Leno's show debuts tonight.
Jay Leno's show debuts tonight. (By Frederick M. Brown -- Getty Images)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

Jay Leno's new prime-time comedy show may turn out to be a sweet business proposition for NBC. But it could also be very bad news for NBC's station in Washington, WRC, Channel 4.

"The Jay Leno Show," which debuts Monday at 10 p.m. (special first-night interview: President Obama), isn't just a five-nights-per-week comedy-and-talk show; it's a new model for cost-containment in an age of increasingly fickle TV audiences. Leno himself has bragged that an entire week of his show will cost less than a single episode of the dramas that have been in the time slot, such as "Law & Order: SVU" and "ER." What's more, Leno will be hosting new shows 46 weeks of the year, providing about twice as many original programs as NBC's old drama series combined.

So far so good. Now for the bad news: While it's hard to predict how many people will watch Leno's show (mostly because the concept hasn't been tried by a network for decades), hardly anyone expects Leno to attract as many viewers as NBC did at 10 p.m. last year. And that wasn't much to begin with; NBC was the fourth-ranked network last season, trailing far behind Fox, CBS and ABC.

"It's unknown territory at this point, but even if all his loyalists from 'The Tonight Show' watched him, it will still be much smaller" than NBC's recent prime-time viewing audience, says Jim Willi, senior vice president of AR&D, a company that advises TV stations on programming strategies.

The prospect of fewer viewers every night of the week could have a ripple effect on stations like WRC, which is owned by NBC. For starters, a smaller "lead-in" audience from Leno would threaten Channel 4's dominant 11 p.m. newscast. "News4 at 11," anchored by Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, has been the most popular at that hour for more than a decade. In turn, a weakened newscast would hurt "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien, which has been struggling since O'Brien replaced Leno as host in June.

Eventually, as fewer and fewer people are exposed to promotions for upcoming shows, every part of WRC's schedule could take a hit.

Or not. Michael Jack, WRC's president and general manager, says he's "cautiously optimistic" about Leno's prospects. Leno, he points out, will offer a clear alternative to other network shows at 10 p.m.; while the other guys are showing reality shows or crime-procedural dramas (or reruns of them), Leno will be doing fresh, topical comedy. Further, says Jack, Leno appeals to an audience that tends to watch the late news, providing a natural bridge between network and local programs.

Nevertheless, several of WRC's local competitors spy opportunity in Leno's move to prime time. They reason that if Leno's reception is tepid, thousands of disaffected local viewers will go looking for something else to watch. Although the choices are vast -- hundreds of cable channels, programs stored on DVRs or online, etc. -- stations affiliated with one of the major broadcast networks, such as WJLA (ABC7), WTTG (Fox5) or WUSA (Channel 9, a CBS station), could gain the most, they reason. Each of these stations will be carrying the networks' new fall shows, typically the most popular on TV, starting next week.

"I expect [Leno] to come out of the gates fairly strong," says Bill Lord, WJLA's news director, citing an effective publicity campaign by NBC. "But after you get past the curiosity factor, the thing I question is his viability. Will people watch his monologue and then switch elsewhere?" Lord is particularly enthusiastic about "Nightline," the venerable newsmagazine show whose audience has been growing as older viewers turned away from O'Brien this summer.

News4's lead has held in recent years despite NBC's prime-time problems, but the station isn't entirely immune to its network's ailments. On NBC's weakest night of the week last year, Fridays, the station's 11 p.m. ratings dropped as much as 30 percent compared with the rest of the week. If Leno performs at Friday-night levels every night, the station -- already under corporate orders to cut costs in a recession -- could face even more demands for economies, propelling a downward cycle.

Such a nightmare scenario has already occurred to some of the 200-plus stations around the country that are affiliated with (but not owned by) NBC. Late-night newscasts are highly valued by local stations because they are among a station's most profitable and most heavily promoted programs.

In April, anxiety over Leno led one NBC affiliate, WHDH in Boston, to announce that it would move its local newscast into the 10 p.m. slot, bumping Leno's new show off its prime-time schedule. NBC's lawyers returned fire quickly, replying that such a move would violate the station's network-affiliation agreement. Threatened with the loss of all of NBC's programs, the station quickly backed down, and said it would start airing Leno at 10 beginning tonight.

Sensitive to its stations' concerns, NBC has tried to structure Leno's program in an affiliate-friendly way, says Willi, the programming strategist. For example, Leno will do his popular "Tonight Show" bits -- "Jaywalking" and "Headlines," among others -- in the last portion of the show to maximize the audience just before the news starts. The network will then forgo the usual commercial break between programs, "streaming" right into the news in an attempt to keep viewers around.

Yet NBC's bold experiment in low-cost entertainment has already shown signs of weakness. During the preseason advertising sales period known as the "upfronts" last spring, NBC was unable to sell ad time on Leno's show at the prices it normally commands for scripted programs. Instead, in an indication of diminished expectations, advertisers bought time at the low end of the prime-time scale, at rates similar to that of "Dateline NBC" and other magazine-style shows, TV executives said.

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