Jay at 10, Bad News at 11?

Leno's new show didn't help late news ratings for big NBC stations last week. But the race is just beginning.

While it's still too early to draw many hard-and-fast conclusions about how Jay Leno at 10 is impacting NBC overall, premiere week ratings suggest the Peacock's bold move did no favors to the network's local newscasts.

Data from Nielsen's top five markets– New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas — show NBC stations all saw their 11 p.m. newscasts drop by double digits during the first week of the 2009-10 season.

Clearly, that's not a good thing. But it's also no reason for anyone at the Peacock to panic, or rival stations to party. At least not yet.

As has been noted before, the early ratings on the Leno front probably won't be predictive of his show's ultimate performance. His first week numbers were inflated; last week's figures were no doubt impacted by the fact that other nets rolled out most of their season and series premieres last week.

And we're talking just one week of data here: Ratings, especially for local news, can vary widely from week to week, based not only on primetime leads-in but on news events or newscast stunting.

 

Translation: Take what follows with a big ol’ grain of salt. Although, if you're a GM at a NBC station, it couldn't to have a couple of Tums handy over the next few weeks.

As expected, "The Jay Leno" attracted significantly fewer viewers than the 10 p.m. programming it replaced– at least when comparing premiere week 2009 to the same five days in 2008.

In New York, for example, NBC-owned WNBC was down 65 percent in adults 25-54 during the 10-11 p.m. hour last week. (Adults 25-54 is the key demo for news).

With a lower lead-in, the impact on WNBC's 11 p.m. news was almost a given. The late news declined 37 percent in 25-54.

By contrast, ABC's WABC fell 12 percent in the news demo. And the Eye's WCBS actually rose 22 percent (albeit off a much smaller base).

The story was the same in LA. KNBC's 10 p.m. Leno average fell 37 percent in the news demo, helping cut ratings for the station's 11 p.m. news by 30 percent.

CBS's station was up 20 percent (also off of a smaller, third-place base), while ABC's LA outlet dropped 21 percent.

(ABC year-to-year comparisons are skewed because last year, ABC had a "Dancing with the Stars" episode that ran until 11 p.m., giving local stations a big leg up. A David Blaine special did better than "The Forgotten" on Wednesday, "Grey's Anatomy's" two-hour bow was also much bigger last year, and analysis of the vice presidential debate also outperformed this year's "20/20").

The other markets in the top 5:

–Chicago: Leno was down 48 percent; the local news on WMAQ fell just 14 percent. ABC was down 11 percent at 11, while CBS was up 27 percent (yup, smaller base).

–Philly: Jay dropped 56 percent in premiere week; NBC's local news fell 32 percent. The ABC station was also down 21 percent, while CBS's station picked up 6 percent more brotherly love.

–Dallas: The Leno drop-off was 39 percent in the Big D, while the news decline was 33 percent. ABC was also off 29 percent at 11, while CBS fell three percent.

So what's it all mean? As noted, it really is too soon to say for sure.

At first glance, the premiere week numbers don't look good for NBC. At all.

"They're just scary," a wag at a network not named NBC told TheWrap.

But keep in mind that premiere week offered CBS and ABC a chance to show off their biggest guns, thus boosting their local stations. By contrast, Leno was in "settling in" mode last week, having attracted much sampling and much bigger audiences the week before.

NBC says it's taking a full-year approach to 10 p.m., and presumably that applies to its stations. The network believes Leno will do better when the other networks are in repeats (Jay plans on taking off just a few weeks per year).

In those weeks when Jay is opposite repeats, there's a chance he could surge– lifting local news numbers with him.

It's also possible that Leno has found his comfort zone and will, on most nights, average roughly between a 1.7 and a 2.4 in the demo– just as he did during premiere week.

If that's the case, the question is whether local news numbers will follow the same pattern as premiere week, dropping in tandem with Leno's decline (relative to the primetime dropoff). Or do viewers return to their old viewing habits for late news, skipping Leno but returning at 11 o'clock?

An NBC spokeswoman suggested that patience might be a virtue for all involved (including, we assume, bloggers who want to be the first to write about a particular topic):

"As we've said from the very beginning this is not about looking at a single isolated week, but rather the total course of an entire 52- week season," she said.