Leno's Ratings Plunge, but Viewers Loyal to WRC, Channel 4's 11 p.m. News

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Jay Leno's sinking ratings are causing pain for the NBC stations that air his new show -- with at least one striking exception: Washington's WRC-TV.

Bucking an emerging -- and for NBC potentially worrisome -- national trend, local viewers have remained loyal to WRC's 11 p.m. newscast despite the plunging audience for "The Jay Leno Show" in the hour preceding it. Viewer loyalty to "News4" was so strong, in fact, that WRC grabbed more viewers at 11 p.m. than Leno had in prime time, an almost unheard-of occurrence in TV.

After a strong start in its opening week, Leno's new five-nights-a-week show has lost viewers in droves, as rival networks began airing their new fall programs, according to Nielsen data. The audience losses, in turn, have had a predictable effect on the local newscasts that follow Leno. In cities such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Baltimore, the late news on NBC stations has lost tens of thousands of viewers.

But not WRC, Channel 4. Anchored by Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, WRC's "News4 at 11," continues to dominate late-news ratings and has even gained viewers post-Leno. It may even be keeping Conan O'Brien ahead in Washington even as he trails David Letterman elsewhere.

Last week, for example, Leno's comedy-and-talk show finished a distant fourth among Washington stations, attracting an average of 119,000 area viewers a night from Monday through Friday.

The most popular programs at 10 p.m. were on WUSA, Channel 9, which broadcasts CBS's lineup of dramas ("CSI: Miami," "The Good Wife," etc.). Channel 9 drew an average of 191,000 viewers during the week. ABC affiliate WJLA, Channel 7, ranked second (146,000) and Fox affiliate WTTG, Channel 5, which airs an hour of local news at 10 p.m., was third (121,000).

At 11 p.m., however, WRC rebounded smartly, easily topping the competition. "News4 at 11" (158,000 viewers per night) had almost twice as big a crowd as the news on WJLA (86,000) or WUSA (81,000), and nearly triple WTTG's audience (56,000).

"Maybe as the news leaders, the good news is people continue to find us, regardless of the lead-in program," said Michael Jack, president and general manager of WRC, which is owned by NBC's parent, General Electric Co. Whatever the reason, Jack said, "we're very pleased."

No one at Channel 9 had reason to be pleased, though. At 11 p.m. last week, viewers abandoned the station; more than half the audience departed after watching shows like "CSI: New York" or "The Mentalist" at 10 p.m.

WUSA President and General Manager Allan Horlick downplayed the bad news yesterday, saying Channel 9 is in wait-and-see mode. "I don't think there's anything definitive to be learned yet," Horlick said.

Unlike WRC, NBC stations around the country haven't been immune to the Leno Effect, the tendency of his show to diminish viewing of the following program. During Leno's second week on the air in late September, NBC's Los Angeles station saw its 11 p.m. news ratings fall 30 percent compared with the same week last year. In Philly, the drop was 32 percent. In Dallas, it was 33 percent.

Last Thursday, against strong competition on CBS and ABC, "The Jay Leno Show" recorded its smallest national audience (4.96 million, according to preliminary Nielsen figures) since it debuted on Sept. 14. That could be a problem for NBC because Thursday -- a night the network used to dominate back in the "Seinfeld" era -- is one of the most lucrative for advertising revenue.

WRC's Jack cautioned that a few weeks doesn't tell the whole story. NBC has long maintained that Leno's ratings will rise and fall and should be judged over the course of a year, since he'll be airing original episodes during weeks in which other networks are showing reruns.

But NBC's affiliates are likely to become restless if Leno's poor lead-in performance continues for very long. The late news is critical to stations because advertisers tend to pay the highest rates for local airtime. Thus, falling news ratings can translate into the loss of millions of ad dollars.

Thanks in part to Vance and Gentzler, WRC has been able to beat the national trend in late-night talk, too.

While David Letterman (carried on WUSA locally) has surpassed "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" (carried on WRC) nationwide, Conan still beats Dave among local viewers.

With the big lead-in audience from "News4 at 11," "The Tonight Show" averaged 78,000 viewers last week on WRC, just beating Letterman's "Late Show" on WUSA (76,000). WJLA's broadcast of "Nightline" is a distant third (59,000).

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