Jay walking? Try stumbling

After strong start, Leno’s falling ratings raise concerns

Initially, Jay Leno’s new show - he chatted here with Jennifer Garner - had high ratings. Initially, Jay Leno’s new show - he chatted here with Jennifer Garner - had high ratings. (Photos Justin Lubin/Nbc)
By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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Jay Leno’s entry into prime time television delivered big ratings for local NBC affiliate WHDH-TV in its first week, but the variety show has since dropped in local ratings and has hurt viewership for the late newscast that follows on Channel 7.

While other networks were airing reruns, the comedian’s show had a strong debut the week of Sept. 14, with each episode of that week ranking among the most watched 30 shows in Boston, according to the Nielsen Co. But the Leno show has since dropped off from an average of 275,700 total viewers in the premiere week to 154,700 by the end of the four-week period on Oct. 15.

The ratings crash also has hurt the 11 p.m. newscast that follows the Leno show: In the coveted demographic of viewers ages 25-54 for the first month of Leno’s show, viewership of WHDH’s newscast was cut almost by half, from 81,200 adults to 49,100.

Chris Wayland, general manager and vice president of WHDH and sister station WLVI-TV (Channel 56) said it was too early to comment on the ratings.

Jay Leno’s publicist referred calls to NBC spokesman John McKay, who agreed that no conclusions can be drawn yet. He also pointed to a recent Nielsen report that NBC affiliates across the country are down an average of 12 percent compared with a year ago in local late news ratings based on three weeks of Leno’s show, excluding the first week.

“So far, the show’s performance is in-line with what our research predicted,’’ he said.

NBC has been in a chronic ratings slump and hasn’t had a hit at 10 p.m. in recent years. But the network had high hopes for the Leno show, which includes similar programming from his previous late night show such as an opening monologue, headlines, “Jay Walking,’’ plus a new segment called the “Green Car Challenge.’’

Industry officials have said having the Leno show at 10 p.m. would cost a fraction of what a network might pay for a scripted series in that hour. In Boston, the most watched shows are scripted shows at 10 p.m. - CBS crime dramas such as “The Mentalist’’ and “CSI’’ Miami and New York series.

Initially, Leno’s show had high ratings. The Sept. 14 debut drew 321,000 total viewers, ranking as the 12th most watched program that week in Boston. The second show attracted 294,000 total viewers, the third show had 265,000, and the fifth show on a Friday night raked in 226,000 people. In the first week of the show, Leno benefitted from big celebrity guests such as Kanye West, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tom Cruise.

“There was a sampling at work there, a curiosity factor because Leno did have a following and because it was an interesting experiment,’’ said Steve Safran, a Natick-based media consultant with the audience research firm AR&D.

But the show has seen a dramatic drop-off, with the episodes no longer appearing on Boston’s list of 30-most watched shows as they did in the beginning. The early numbers seem to confirm a fear that WHDH’s owner had when NBC announced that it would add Leno’s show at 10 p.m.

Last April, WHDH’s owner, Ed Ansin, said he would air a 10 p.m. newscast instead of Leno’s new show because he believed that a newscast would draw better ratings than Leno. After NBC’s top brass threatened to pull WHDH’s NBC affiliation, Ansin reversed his decision a week later.

But early numbers show that Ansin was right - at least so far. WHDH actually was doing better in the key 25-54 demo before Leno premiered: During the July sweeps, the station had regained its top perch at 11 p.m. among those viewers.

“It’s not surprising that [the show] is having an effect on the numbers,’’ added Safran. “The stations were right to be concerned . . . The problem they are all facing is the audience migration to different types of entertainment at 11 o’clock because the local ad dollar has radically shifted.’’

The ratings numbers, which Nielsen crunched from the show’s debut on Sept. 14 through four weeks ended Oct. 15 compared with the four-week period of Sept. 15 to Oct. 16 of 2008 at the Globe’s request, are an early indicator of the show’s success.

Traditionally, ratings information is gathered during the competitive quarterly “sweeps’’ periods, when networks roll out new episodes and local stations use that programming to help promote their newscasts and draw viewers.

Locally, the rankings in total viewers haven’t changed at 11 p.m. from the previous sweeps periods this year and in Leno’s first month on the air. WBZ-TV (Channel 4) continues to lead with 163,000, followed by WCVB-TV (Channel 5) with 129,100; WHDH with 125,500, and WFXT-TV (Channel 25) with 51,600 for its 10 p.m. telecast. WHDH was down about 10,000 viewers from a year ago.

Even in the key demographic of adults ages 25-54 for the first month of Leno’s show, WBZ continued to lead.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at