Leno Controversy Still Simmering in Boston

Dropping Jay Leno’s new show is a risky move for WHDH-TV; it will pull in more ad revenue, but may cause the loss of its NBC affiliation.

Last Updated: April 6, 2009 @ 7:37 PM

When Boston’s NBC affiliate WHDH-TV announced Thursday that it would forgo Jay Leno’s new 10 p.m. series in the fall with its own hour-long newscast, the station’s owner claimed that doing so made better financial sense.

"We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m.," WHDH owner Ed Ansin told the Boston Globe last week. "We don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime. It will be detrimental to our 11 o’clock [newscast]. It will be very adverse to our finances."

Whether or not Leno proves to be effective in primetime, the move certainly seems like a financial win for WHDH.

When WHDH airs NBC programming, they only get to sell a portion of the commercial time. But if WHDH airs local content, they get to sell all of the ad spots, thereby retaining more revenue.

In the case of the 10 p.m. news broadcast, the station could sell up to 14 minutes of ad time, industry experts estimate.

WHDH had sought permission from NBC to air Leno at 11 p.m., but that request was denied, Ansin told the paper. Now, WHDH does not plan to run Leno at all and will air a local news show at 10 p.m., followed by the current half-hour news broadcast at 11 and Conan O’Brien’s new 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show."

In addition, WHDH will be able to package their entire 10-11:30 news block at one rate, simultaneously boosting the local stations news franchise. The channel would also reap benefits during election season, when they would be able to charge more for news spots from political buyers than they would otherwise.

Both WHDH and Ansin declined to comment for this story.

The 10 p.m. news hour has proved successful for rival WFXT-TV Channel 25, Boston’s Fox outlet. During the March ratings sweep, the WFXT newscast pulled in an average of 210,600 total viewers. Ansin has seen firsthand the strong ratings a 10 o’clock newscast can pull: he also owns Fox affiliate WSVN-TV (Channel 7) in Miami, whose 10 p.m. hour has done well.

"The value of a 10 o’clock newscast is that you have a full hour to gain more revenue for your station," said Julio Rumbaut, the founder and president of WSCV-TV, Channel 51 in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale who now heads his own media and advisory firm. "Plus, an early newscast does very well with people who go to bed earlier, it’s a proven strategy. Ansin is saying, ‘I know it works because it’s worked for me in other markets, why wouldn’t it work here?’"

Ansin has long held a reputation for being somewhat of a cowboy in the industry. In 1989, WSVN-TV lost its NBC affiliation after the network purchased another station in the area, WTVJ. WSVN sued the network and dropped some its programming months before the switchover. That lawsuit was later dropped.

For its part, NBC has warned that such a move would put the affiliate in breach of its contract with the network, and could lead to a break.

"If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation," NBC TV Network president John Eck said in a statement, which also said that the network has a number of other options in the Boston area, including its Telemundo station, WNEU (Channel 60) — which could be switched into an NBC outlet — and the independently-owned and CBS-operated WSBK.

A network executive said Friday the network had already received three telephone calls from stations in the Boston market who are interested in becoming NBC affiliates.

Still, even if NBC finds a new affiliate in Boston, the stir-up could certainly be the beginning of trouble for the network. Boston is NBC’s seventh-largest market, and one act of rebellion could prompt a slew of bad news for the network if other affiliates follow WHDH’s lead.

NBC didn’t seem worried about a possible deluge.

"This is truly a very isolated situation," Cory Shields, executive vice president of NBCU Communications told The Wrap. "We’re getting tremendous support on this from the affiliates."

A story that ran on WHDH’s website announcing plans for the 10 p.m. newscast could not be found on the page Friday, perhaps indicating the channel may back down from its risky move.

And if history is any indication, losing the NBC affiliation could certainly make a grim future for WHDH. After disagreements persisted between NBC and its long-time San Francisco affiliate KRON in 2000, the network opted to strip KRON of its affiliation and start a relationship with San Jose-based KNTV instead. Without the NBC affiliation, KRON’s ratings dropped significantly.

"I think it’s a risky decision because of the business climate and trends with viewers. There hasn’t been growth in local TV news," said Suzanne Lysak, a former producer at LA’s KCBS who now teaches  broadcast journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Morning news has been the area where we’ve seen more growth. Late night news has been tapering off."

Leno is also a native of the state, having grown up in Andover, Mass.

"I’m not sure I want to be the station that doesn’t come on board with the local-boy-made-good," said one former local television station marketing and research expert. "It’s a big spin of the wheel, and they lose the bet if Leno does really well in the ratings. In that case, WHDH would be much better off carrying Leno because it would be helping their 11 o’clock news."

So why not wait to see how Leno does? One media expert said Ansin may simply be looking for a way out of his contract.

"Network audience has been weaker, and he may be saying to himself, ‘I can do better.’ When he lost the affiliation over a decade ago, he worked very hard — he’s a smart guy. I’m sure he has a plan."
 

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