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Michael L. Vinson/MEDILL

After feeling pressure from affiliate stations, NBC will remove "The Jay Leno Show" from its primetime lineup. Here, NBC offices in downtown Chicago.

After Leno reversal, hope for a NBC turnaround

by Michael L. Vinson
Jan 12, 2010

Early reactions indicate that NBC's move of "The Jay Leno Show" from its primetime spot back to late-night may be welcomed by viewers and local stations alike.

“He’s got a big head and he’s funny,” Ed Phalon, 26, of Chicago said.

Although a fan of Mr. Leno, Phalon hasn’t seen the new primetime show because he doesn’t get home in time.  But when Mr. Leno returns to his previous late-night schedule, Phalon could well be right back with him.

The schedule change may bring important benefits to local NBC stations.

“The local late-night newscasts were being seriously harmed by the low Leno ratings in the 10 p.m. [EST] hour,” said Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.  “The damage was several ratings points in some markets.”

According to Nielsen Co., which tracks television ratings, NBC-owned-and-operated WMAQ-TV in Chicago saw its 10 p.m. newscast drop to a 4.8 rating in December, down 18 percent from a 5.9 rating in the same period a year earlier.   Each rating point represents 1 percent of the total audience during a particular time period in a given market.

The Business Journal of Milwaukee reported that the NBC affiliate there, WTMJ-TV, which is owned by Journal Communications Inc., experienced a 33 percent ratings decline among viewers aged 25 to 34 for its 10 p.m. newscast, falling to a 3.9 rating.  The program, which had been the ratings leader prior to NBC’s primetime experiment with “Leno,” slipped to No. 2 in the Milwaukee market.

WTHR-TV reported that its top-rated late-evening news program in Indianapolis, Ind., also dropped from No. 1 to No. 2 after “Leno” debuted in September as the late-night news lead-in.

“Local news is a major money-maker for affiliates,” McCall said. “The local NBC affiliates around the country were making their displeasure about the Leno broadcast clear to the network offices. The NBC executives finally listened. NBC headquarters couldn't go on with so many unhappy affiliates,” he added.

After the Winter Olympics end in February, NBC is expected to replace “The Jay Leno Show” at 9 p.m. CST with either scripted or reality-based programming, hoping for a more potent lead-in for the newscasts.

Michael Smith, executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University’s Medill School, suggested that audiences might be receptive to NBC’s mea culpa.

“Sometimes things can be good for you if you admit failure,” Smith said.  He likened NBC’s latest move to Coca-Cola’s experiment with New Coke in the 1980s. 

Essentially, he said, NBC’s reversal admits, “We blew it.We’ll give you back what you really want.”