It’s another Boston Tea Party (of the TV kind)… NBC Boston affiliate WHDH announced tonight that, come September, it will air a full hour of local news at 10 PM. That means it won’t air Jay Leno’s new 10 PM show. Not only is this a huge slap in the face to Jay by his hometown station, but also to NBC. And the network is fighting back and even threatening reprisals. Tonight, I received several strongly worded statements from NBC execs declaring war on the affiliate, including this one from John Eck, President of the NBC TV Network: “WHDH’s move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC. If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC Affiliation. We have a number of other strong options in the Boston market, including using our existing broadcast license to launch an NBC owned and operated station.” Also playing hardball is Rick Cotton, General Counsel: “It is clear that WHDH is contractually required to air NBC programming as scheduled by the network.”
That’s not what WHDH owner, Sunbeam chief Ed Ansin, claims. He told the Boston Globe that WHDH could contractually replace Leno at 10 PM with news because, “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.” Now the question remains: will others among NBC’s long suffering affiliates think the same way and also revolt?
I’m told that, as of now, no other affiliates are threatening to dump Leno. The last time an affiliate challenged NBC, it was KRON in San Francisco — and the station is stuck now as a MyNetworkTV affiliate. NBC is even threatening to pit a strong competitor against WHDH in the Boston market if the station doesn’t start toeing the line. “I don’t think WHDH realizes that we have an O&O in Boston, [WNEU, Channel 60], the Telemundo station there. We could easily shift programming to that station. Or talk with the other independents,” an NBC Universal exec told me tonight.
Just one problem: WNEU only reaches a portion of the Boston market.
Tonight, NBC also trotted out Michael Fiorile, the NBC Affiliate Board Chairman (and Vice Chairman of the Dispatch Group) to give Jay a vote of confidence: “The NBC affiliates are very excited about the new Leno show weeknights at 10 p.m. Jay is a true star with enormous appeal. We’ve been engaged in an open dialogue with NBC about the format of the show, and we’re looking forward to working with Jay and the entire team to make it a huge success.”
But the sad truth is that the same Michael Fiorile was telling media outlets at the end of 2008 that NBC’s beleaguered affiliates had asked the network last summer to give back time, and maybe even days, to them. And to give local content a shot. Because few of theNBC affiliates get a substantial boost from NBC’s primetime offerings because of the low ratings. Even NBC Universal boss Jeff Zucker has admitted that the network-affiliate relationship is overdue for an overhaul. But don’t for a minute think the affiliates’ first-choice scenario isn’t for the network to finally deliver some primetime hits. Instead, NBC is giving up on even trying to program for high ratings.
The result is that when the new 2009-2010 schedule debuts in September, Leno’s show from Day One will be rated lower than anything on NBC’s primetime even now. But that doesn’t matter according to NBC Universal’s controversial philosophy of “managing for margins, not ratings”. Estimates are that Leno 2.0 may only cost $2M a week and result in 46 weeks of original shows, compared to the average $3 million per episode pricetag of scripted primetime dramas that air on average 22 original weekly episodes. But the 58-year-old attracts only 4.8 million viewers now on The Tonight Show — measly by primetime standards, especially in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic. The affiliates know that expanded local news or local ballgames might hit a higher number than Leno or NBC’s weaker nights — which is no doubt why WHDH made the decision it did.