Late shift good for Leno, NBC newscasts

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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Comedian Jay Leno’s return to late night in March has helped NBC and its affiliates recover some of their late news audiences after his short-lived prime-time variety show crippled ratings.

Managers at NBC affiliates such as Boston’s WHDH-TV (Channel 7) and Providence’s WJAR-TV (Channel 10) said viewership for their late newscasts has steadily risen since NBC moved Jay Leno from prime-time back to late night. In March, Leno returned to “The Tonight Show’’ and NBC replaced his earlier “The Jay Leno Show’’ with scripted dramas and a reality show to lead into local stations’ late newscasts.

When Leno began airing at 10 p.m. last September, the peacock network lost about 4.6 percent of its prime-time viewers. A study by research firm Harmelin Media estimated that audiences for most NBC affiliates’ late news — the most lucrative in terms of ad dollars — plunged an average of 25 percent among the key 25- to 54-year-old audience.

Earlier this year, the network said it would return Leno to late night on March 1. At that time, NBC went back to its typical prime-time lineup with dramas such as “Law & Order,’’ and added two new shows, including the drama “Parenthood’’ and a reality show featuring comic Tom Papa called “The Marriage Ref.’’

Since then, Leno has been back on top: averaging 4.45 million viewers compared with 3.44 million for “The Late Show with David Letterman,’’ according to Nielsen Co., the ratings service company. In Boston, Leno has beaten Letterman, averaging 98,800 viewers to Letterman’s 57,100 since March.

Industry analysts have said that Leno’s variety show didn’t serve as a strong lead-in for a local newscast because viewers generally tuned in for the beginning of the show, such as the monologue, and then tuned out, depending on that night’s guests. With scripted dramas, viewers usually watch from beginning to end, and then watch the station’s following newscast.

Indeed, the change in NBC’s programming has boosted WHDH. During the first month of Leno’s variety show, WHDH’s 11 p.m. viewership dropped by almost half in the 25-54 demographic. With a ratings boost from the Winter Olympics and Leno’s return to late night, the station came back to win in that demographic at 11 p.m. in February, March, and April, but lost that lead in May to WCVB-TV (Channel 5) by 2,500 viewers.

“When they pulled Jay Leno and patched those holes, things started to look up, including ‘The Tonight Show’ going back to No. 1,’’ said Robert Thompson, a television professor at Syracuse University.

Last week, NBC said it was adding a slate of new dramas at 10 p.m., and NBC affiliates say they are looking forward to that fall lineup. Among the new shows: “Law & Order: Los Angeles,’’ “Chase,’’ a Jerry Bruckheimer production about US marshals hunting down fugitives, and “Undercovers,’’ a J.J. Abrams series about married former CIA agents who run a catering company.

“There is no question that they invested more money this year than they have in previous years,’’ said Chris Wayland, vice president and general manager of WHDH. “They invested with producers that have been very successful on multiple networks.’’

It was WHDH’s owner, Ed Ansin who publicly objected last year to NBC’s plans to move the Leno show to 10 p.m. Ansin had wanted to air a local newscast at that hour instead because he believed Leno’s show in prime-time would serve as a weak lead-in for WHDH’s 11 p.m. newscast. But a week later, Ansin reversed his decision when NBC threatened to pull his station’s network affiliation.

WHDH’s Wayland said that NBC is on the right trajectory with the new shows, which could further advance his late newscast. “As NBC launches these new programs, it’s only going to help us,’’ he said.

Lisa Churchville, general manager of the NBC affiliate in Providence, agrees. Her station’s ratings for the 11 p.m. newscast dropped 36 percent last November compared with the year before. For the May ratings period, she said that her late news audience is down only 13 percent but the station is winning again at 11 p.m.

“They are spending money. It’s an investment,’’ said Churchville. “We are very hopeful for an absolute total recovery. I am very excited about the fall lineup.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at