For all the buzz since Thursday on NBC's plan to move Jay Leno out of prime time after barely four months, there is one driving force behind the story that has largely been ignored: The arrival of a new season of "American Idol" on Fox Tuesday night.
The story of affiliate anger over "the Leno Effect" is one major factor for the Dump Leno Movement at NBC. The "effect" involves Leno's weak lead-in at 11 p.m. weeknights dramatically driving down the audience size for late news on local affiliates across the country.
Baltimore affiliate WBAL, one of the more-respected local TV news operations in the country, has been one of the hardest hit by the Leno Effect, losing more than half of its audience at 11 p.m. since the prime-time debut of the veteran comedian in September.
Late news can account for as much as one-third of all station revenue, according to University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery, and that money does not come out of NBC's pockets. In the case of Channel 11, it comes out of the coffers of Hearst-Argyle, the company that owns WBAL and provides the resources for the Baltimore station to have a first-class news operation.
But as bad as Leno's ratings failure has made it for affiliates like WBAL and station owners like Hearst, things get worse when ratings juggernaut "American Idol" arrives every January. While Leno's failure has cut WBAL's late news audience in half, "Idol's" arrival almost doubles the late news audience for WBFF (Fox45). And because Fox affiliates air their news at 10, that larger audience for Fox45 during the last hour of prime time would likely mean an even smaller audience for Leno starting Tuesday. Call it the Idol After-Effect - and it is about to kick in.
"Fortunately for Fox45, 'American Idol' is back and it has the potential to double our 10 p.m. news audience," said Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF and 19 other Sinclair Broadcasting stations in 11 other markets around the country. "Unfortunately for WBAL, NBC changed its 10 p.m. programming to Jay Leno, which in part caused a 50 percent drop in WBAL's 11 p.m. news audience. And this isn't unique just to Baltimore." While the numbers in that statement might sound improbably high, they are accurate. In fact, Fanshawe understated one of them, according to Nielsen data.
That's the math that makes this the season of discontent at NBC with Leno.
And once again, like most other Fox affiliates, WBFF will be stoking the synergy between "Idol" and its news with entertainment reporter Candace Dold making trips to Los Angeles to cover the cutdown to 16 finalists, and then the grand finale in May.
Dold will also do "Idol" recaps and interviews three days a week during the morning news, in addition to running the "Idol" blog at FoxBaltimore.com. She will further handle the Twitter and Facebook legs of Fox45's "Idol" coverage.
But as delighted as Fox affiliate managers like Fanshawe are to see the return of the highest-rated prime-time series on TV Tuesday, they will also be watching the early ratings with more apprehension than usual.
First, "Idol" will be without one of its original judges and mainstay talents, Paula Abdul, who left last year in a contract dispute. Abdul was the heart of the show, the "kind mom" figure who reached out to and supported young performers even as Simon Cowell, the "mean dad" character, tore some of them down.
As contrived as such TV personas usually are, Abdul's history on camera and off of being a little erratic at times made her most emotional moments at the judges' table believable. Her emotion and energy were critical to the show's success. After using a series of high-visibility guest judges like Victoria Beckham and Mary J. Blige, the producers named comedian Ellen DeGeneres as Abdul's permanent replacement.
"The Paula thing is really near and dear to my heart - she's one of my best friends," Randy Jackson, one of the three original judges, said Friday. "The whole thing started with me, Ryan [Seacrest], Simon and her. So, I miss that. We look down the table sometimes and go, 'Wait a minute, where's Paula?' And I expect to hear something from my left ear, and I go, 'Wait a minute, that doesn't sound like Paula.' So, it's going to take a little getting used to. And we're sad about that."
And while Jackson acknowledged that because of all the guest judges, he won't actually be sitting down to tape with DeGeneres until next week in Hollywood, he sounded a hopeful note about the show's life post-Paula.
"Welcoming Ellen to the fold is a good look," he said. "She's funny, she's charismatic, she's really cool. She's my homegirl from Louisiana. So, it's going to be a very funny, different, interesting season on 'Idol.' "
Another factor troubling the waters at "Idol" involves rumors that Cowell will be leaving at the end of the season, and so, might not be all that engaged this year.