Is Leno Effect a long-term loss of viewers?

NBC affiliates keeping hopes up -- and, maybe, fingers crossed

November 06, 2009|By David Zurawik | david.zurawik@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun TV critic

The November sweeps ratings period is one of the first major milestones of the TV season. Usually, network and station executives can't talk enough about what they have to offer during the month in hopes of attracting viewers.

Unless, that is, one of the things you have is "The Jay Leno Show" airing at 10 p.m. thanks to a risky move made by NBC in hopes of cutting costs this fall.

If you are an NBC affiliate manager such as Jordan Wertlieb at WBAL-TV in Baltimore, you are more interested in talking about December when the other networks will mostly be in reruns. The reason for that: Right now, your late local news is getting thrashed in the ratings like never before thanks to Leno's failure to attract a large lead-in audience at 10 against first-run competition.

"Don't forget this was a seismic change, a watershed change in network television," Wertlieb says. "This is something that needs to be evaluated over time. How will Leno do against repeats? As you know, most series are 22 episodes. How does Leno do on the other weeks? I think you can start to evaluate this at the end of December, but not yet now."

But the negative impact of the Leno move on local stations is so great that it is being evaluated by others right now -- including other NBC affiliate managers who are getting antsy about the money Leno is costing them. The 59-year-old entertainer has been on the phone the past two weeks calling some of them such as Wertlieb in an attempt to buck up spirits.

The stories about Leno's ratings are everywhere, from this paper and my blog, to the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable and The Daily Beast Web site. In almost three decades of writing about TV, I have seen nothing like what's being called the Leno Effect -- except for the Oprah Factor, which works in the other direction giving a huge boost to those early evening newscasts for which Oprah Winfrey's show serves as a lead-in.

Consider these Baltimore ratings through October (the most recent month for which ratings are available).

Compared to last October, WBAL's 11 p.m. newscast has lost more than half its audience of 25-to-54-year-old viewers, the demographic on which most advertising buys for local newscasts are made. The exact figure is 58 percent -- one of the worst hits taken by any major market station in the country.

For decades, the story of the late news in Baltimore was one of a back-and-forth struggle between WBAL and WJZ for leadership. Say goodbye to that narrative in the post-Leno era. WJZ not only is firmly established in first place, it doubles WBAL's audience in the key demographic.

And the competition is not limited to arch-rival WJZ. At 10 p.m., not only does Leno get beat by prime-time entertainment programming on the other network-owned and affiliated stations in Baltimore, WBFF Fox-45 beats Leno with its 10 p.m. newscast.

In fact, WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate in Baltimore, gets a bigger audience at 10 p.m. for its news than WBAL now does for its news at 11.

While the fallout from NBC's Leno move does not appear to be as great as it is in Baltimore, the Leno Effect is being felt throughout the country.

In Boston, the NBC affiliate lost 40 percent of its audience year-to-year for late news in October. In Miami, it's 30 percent, with the Los Angeles NBC-owned station down 26 percent and New York's WNBC off 22 percent.

"It's early," Michael J. Fiorile, chair of the NBC affiliates board, told Broadcasting & Cable last week, sounding the same talking point as Wertlieb. But Fiorile's timetable for evaluation is shorter. "We'll look at it when November's over. If it improves the way we hope it will, we're in it for the long haul. If not, we'll take a look."

Clearly feeling the heat, Leno, who is one of the hardest workers in show business, seems to be doing everything he can to try to make a bad situation better. He recently called Wertlieb, Fiorile and the NBC affiliate manager in Boston.

Wertlieb declined to discuss specifics of his conversation with the comedian, saying, "He's working hard ... and he's been incredibly supportive of Baltimore. ... He is just reiterating his willingness to help in any way."

So far, that help includes cutting promotional messages each night that address Maryland viewers by name, which the station airs at 6:35 a.m. weekdays.

"His promo says, 'Hey Maryland, here is what's on tonight's show ... only on WBAL-TV 11,'" Wertlieb says.

And this week on Tuesday, Leno will have a segment in his show featuring comedian and jingle composer Owen Benjamin. According to Wertlieb, the segment includes a Baltimore angle -- with visits to shops on 36th Street in Hampden.

"The 36th Street piece has a jingle writer visiting Hampden businesses and writing jingles for them. He does a great parody of the pottery scene from 'Ghost' with a local shop owner," Wertlieb explains.

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