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Faltering Leno leaves local affiliate in ratings crunch

Dale Roe

Boy, Jay Leno has been taking it on the chin. Good thing he's, you know ... Jay Leno. Because he's got that massive ... at the bottom of his face ... that big — oh, never mind.

The point is that his bold experiment of a show (live chatter and comedy five nights a week at 9 p.m. — a time slot traditionally reserved for one-hour dramas featuring lawyers, doctors and cops) is not just being badmouthed by critics for its general awfulness, but also by some NBC affiliates, which are seeing ratings for their late-night newscasts plummet because of the poor lead-in. Revenue from these newscasts makes up a sizable chunk of stations' profits.

The Associated Press reported that Gray Television President Bob Prather, head of 10 NBC affiliates, called the Leno show "a failure that NBC isn't ready to admit," and media buyers as well as general managers from affiliates across the country have been vocal in their disappointment. "I don't think any NBC affiliate wanted to wake up in the fall with a weaker lead-in to their late news," Craig Allison, Kansas City, Mo., affiliate KSHB president and general manager, told the Los Angeles Times.

Leno, longtime host of "The Tonight Show," announced his 2009 departure from that show's desk back in 2004. "You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher, or you can get out when you're still doing good," Leno told his audience on the show's 50th anniversary. Five years later and still on top of the ratings heap, the comic came to regret his decision and began entertaining offers from other networks, which would have placed him in direct competition with "The Tonight Show," promised to "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien.

NBC's solution was "The Jay Leno Show." Cheap to produce when compared with the procedural dramas it would replace and compete with, and a comedy — topical comedy — to boot, Leno's new show (for all intents and purposes his safe, old show at a new time) could withstand low ratings and be considered successful even if it regularly came in a strong third place to ABC's and CBS' hourlong dramas, the network concluded.

Leno has spectacularly met those low, low expectations, although he has recently lost to repeats of CBS dramas nationally (conventional wisdom was that he would lose to first-run programming but bounce back once the other networks dipped into reruns).

Locally, he delivered a 3.6 average rating in the just-ended November sweeps period, concluding with a 2.8 rating in that important period's final week (one ratings point equals 1 percent of the 678,730 TV households in the Austin viewing area). Those numbers put him well behind ABC and CBS network programming. Leno's November average was down 26.5 percent from NBC's 9-10 p.m. programming a year ago, when the network was airing shows such as "Law & Order: SVU," "ER" and "Lipstick Jungle." He's shed a whopping one-third of KXAN viewers since May.

Still, some affiliates remain hopeful, including KXAN general manager Eric Lassberg, who spoke with me Tuesday after The Nielsen Co.'s sweeps ratings were released. Lassberg is frank and realistic about the situation his station finds itself in. In May, KXAN's 10 p.m. newscast was a strong second to perennial leader KVUE, Austin's ABC affiliate. Now it is a distant third to that station and CBS affiliate KEYE (but still pulling slightly better number's than KTBC's "Fox 7 News at 9").

"If you look at the numbers, it's pretty substantial," says Lassberg, who calls the strength of a lead-in "critical."

"I mean, you have KEYE which has 2 1/2 times the ratings we do from 9-10 and you have KVUE with double the ratings we have 9-10. So, you go in with that significant of a disadvantage, it's definitely hard to recoup that."

Still, Lassberg subscribes to the "it's too early to tell" camp of Leno evaluators. He believes that as reruns on the other networks continue — midseason replacements won't arrive until the middle of January — NBC's bold experiment could achieve parity with the competition. "We are a 52-week game here," he says. "We offer the community news and valuable information from our newscasts 52 weeks a year, so it's not all about the 28 days of these sweeps periods." He wants the network to give Leno time to catch on.

It seems strange to ask for more time for Leno who, after so many years on "The Tonight Show," has to be one of the most familiar personalities in American television. But Lassberg expects that the sweeps ratings will only fuel the anti-Jay fire.

"It's a double-edged sword when you have these immediate results, these immediate demographics, these ratings because it creates, you know, maybe some knee-jerk reactions," he explains. "Some of the greatest programs in the history of television wouldn't have made it if we only evaluated them over a two-month period — 'Cheers' and 'Seinfeld' would be two examples. So I get that it's not doing what we want it to and that we're at a disadvantage. But at the same time I think that ... it's a little bit premature."

"The Jay Leno Show" is no "Cheers," but maybe Lassberg's right. And if NBC affiliates are suffering as a result of Leno's poor lead-in, at least the other networks don't seem to be benefiting: Ratings for all of the local nightly newscasts are down: KEYE's have dropped 3.8 percent from a year ago; KVUE's are down 13.2 percent; and "FOX 7 News at 9," which could be expected to benefit from a poor Leno showing, has seen its ratings plummet 28.3 percent from a year ago. The common enemy seems to be the DVR. Viewers shunning Leno appear to be using the hour to catch up on programs they've previously recorded. "The DVR phenomenon is a little bit higher than we thought," David Poltrack, CBS' chief research executive, told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, KXAN is taking steps to combat what's being called "The Leno Effect," (it must be awful to have a negative effect named after you), focusing a lot of promotion on the newscast. The station is using its CW property, Web sites and outside media to draw attention and viewers. And Lassberg points out that the newscast's numbers increase as the hour progresse.

Lassberg remains bullish on Jay. I point out that Leno has recently reached out to affiliates that have publicly supported him and ask Lassberg if he's received a call.

"Not yet," he laughs. "Maybe after he reads this article he'll call me, right?"

It couldn't hurt.