The Leno effect
WBAL feels pain due to lead-in, WJZ firmly in first place for ratings
By David Zurawik | Baltimore Sun TV critic
12:14 p.m. EDT, October 2, 2009
We are only two weeks into the new fall season, but already it looks as if we have an answer to the question of the TV year: How will Jay Leno do in prime time for NBC?
The answer: Pretty well when he is up against reruns or other weak competition, but not very well at all when he is faced with top-notch, first-run programs of the sort CBS is now throwing up against the lantern-jawed comedian on an almost nightly basis this fall.
And while NBC can probably live with being a low-cost alternative to the other networks on most nights, affiliates like Baltimore's WBAL (Channel 11), look as if they are going to be feeling some pain in the pocketbook as a result of NBC's bold move. After decades of a back-and-forth struggle between WBAL and WJZ for leadership in late news, the battle appears to be over in the new post-Leno era with WJZ firmly in first place for the first two weeks of the new season thanks in large part to the power of CBS dramas at 10 o'clock swamping Leno. And there is no single broadcast more important to a local station's fortunes than the late news.
"My thoughts on Leno is that we have always considered Jay Leno at 10 p.m. [to be] a 52-week strategy," WBAL General manager Jordan Wertlieb said this week, echoing a NBC network talking point that says you can't judge Leno solely by what he does against first-run programming. "We expect the program to perform better when running against repeats on the competition and to be the alternative viewing choice when running against first run programming. The first three weeks of the program have bore that out exactly."
NBC has been emphasizing the importance of taking a long view on Leno since the new season started on Sept. 21, and ratings in three different times periods for the network and its affiliates started heading south in the wake of the move.
Here is what the landscape looks like nationally in the wake of one of the biggest shifts since the networks embraced reality shows as NBC upended its prime-time schedule -- replacing expensive 10 p.m. dramas with Leno's new show to drastically cut programming costs.
On the one hand, NBC has reached the 2.0 rating in adult demographics from 10 to 11 p.m. on which it has been selling Leno to advertisers, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But that is down more than 40 percent from what the network averaged in the time period last year with series like "ER" and Law & Order: SVU."
And as a result, NBC stations across the country are down about 15 percent with their late local news from 11 to 11:30 p.m. -- with Baltimore's WBAL firmly part of that pattern.
And the losses extend into late night, with "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" down more than 20 percent from what Leno was doing last year in the time period.
Consider the tremendous difference that 10 p.m. lead-ins made in Baltimore during the late news time period the last three weeks.
During the week of Sept. 14 when Leno debuted and the other channels still had network reruns, "The Jay Leno Show" averaged 84,700 households in the Baltimore market for four nights (The night of Sept. 14 is excluded because of U.S. Open tennis running into late news on CBS.)
Meanwhile, CBS prime-time programming during the 10 p.m. hour was viewed in only 66,000 Baltimore homes on the same four nights.
With the help of that lead-in, WBAL was the number one station in late local news in Baltimore with an average audience of 72,600 homes for the week. WJZ, by comparison, was runner-up with 60,500 households for its 11 p.m. newscast.
But look at what has happened since the new season started on Sept. 21, and CBS rolled out the likes of "The Good Wife" and "The Mentalist" at 10 p.m. on weeknights.
CBS has given WJZ a lead-in audience of 114,300 Baltimore area homes, and the local station has won the 11 p.m. newscast by holding onto 86,900 of them.
Leno and NBC, meanwhile, have delivered a lead-in of only 49,500 homes to WBAL, and the station has managed to average an audience of 52,800 homes. Even though, WBAL's news overachieves on its network lead-in, that audience delivered by Leno and NBC is so small that the station finishes a distant second to WJZ. That's the kind of fallout that is coming to be known as The Leno Effect.
And the pattern holds straight through to 12:35 p.m. as "Late Show with David Letterman" now clobbers Conan O'Brien locally.
"That's a huge swing," says Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland. "And the difference over the course of the season will be measured in the tens of millions of dollars in local station revenue."
Pointing to "The Oprah Effect" and the way Oprah Winfrey lifts the fortunes of local stations that are lucky enough to have her talk show leading into their early news, Gomery says, "Lead-ins matter -- it's just a fact. People have tended for years and years to go from the show they are watching at 10 p.m. to the late news on that channel."
While the move might prove to be cost effective for NBC in the short term, it is already hurting the affiliates. But maybe NBC is only concerned about its own fortunes in the short term, as the network is reportedly up for sale, with Comcast said to be the latest potential buyer.
"NBC certainly isn't thinking about its affiliates with the Leno move," Gomery says. "This is no way to run a network if you are in it for the long haul -- I don't care what kind of new spin they are offering about looking at 52 weeks now that they've seen Leno's premiere week audience disappear. If I'm running an NBC affiliate all I'm thinking about is how much money the Leno move is starting to cost me."http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertai...,6818228.story