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No matter what, NBC's Jay Leno at 10pm will air in Boston

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April 4th, 2009

I got an e-mail from someone wondering why we hadn't been giving more updates on the story of WHDH, the local NBC affiliate in Boston that plans to air local news at 10pm this fall instead of Jay Leno.  There's a case to be made that it is about ratings, but the story itself  is one of those deals where it truly is about the journey and not the destination.  NBC is on record saying that Jay Leno will definitely air in Boston at 10pm this fall no matter what, and that outcome does indeed seem to be certain.  But how they arrive at that destination is what makes this story interesting.

We may see stories like this one (from the LA Times) for weeks:

NBC Universal rolled out a cannon to shoot down a rebel Boston television station that says it will not carry Jay Leno at 10 p.m. when the comedian's show shifts to prime time in the fall.

The media giant said Friday that it would yank all of its NBC programming from Boston's WHDH-TV if the station carried out its threat to ditch Leno -- who grew up outside Boston -- and instead run a local news broadcast at 10.

[...]
"Make no mistake, the new Leno show will air at 10 p.m. weeknights in the Boston market on NBC," Eck said.

Losing a strong station in a Top 10 market would be dicey for the network, further dragging down its prime-time ratings.

That's the last thing NBC needs because it has been stuck in the ratings cellar for four seasons.

Moving Leno to prime time was a solution crafted by NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker to keep Leno from defecting to ABC, and to prop up the peacock's sagging schedule with lower-cost programming.

While no other affiliates besides WHDH have said they wouldn't air Leno, the media is painting a picture of angst at the affiliates over NBC's decision to air Leno at 10pm.  The affiliates are worried ratings at 10pm won't be as good as even the existing usually low-ish ratings NBC draws at 10pm, and as a result hurt revenues for the local 11pm news broadcasts.  That's a reasonable concern, but we can't really begin to make such comparisons until Leno actually airs at 10pm.  I'm sure we will wind up doing some analysis once that hapens.

I'm sure this story will get a lot of media attention until it's resolved, but since I'm sure it will get resolved, it's not that interesting right now, at least from a ratings and numbers perespective.   There are two ways for things to unfold that would make it more interesting though.

One would be if several other affiliates jumped in and did the same thing as WHDH.  That would be pandemonium and I wouldn't be able to resist.  I don't think that's very likely, but we'll see.   There's another way, and even less likely, that it would get very interesting to me.  This is an opportunity for Zucker and crew to inch a step closer to truly being a cable business and begin unwinding from the unprofitable network affiliate model.  I'd love to see  a situation where NBC says, "Broadcasting is overrated, we've cut carriage deals to air our content locally in Boston over the cable and satellite providers."

But that's not going to happen.

Despite what I expect is a very real desire to unwind from the existing local affiliate model in general (and at all broadcast networks, not just NBC),  I'm pretty sure they don't want to unwind from that model  in the top local markets.  Boston is currently the seventh largest local television market according to Nielsen, and I see no chance NBC would be willing to give up on that kind of turf.

However it resolves, I'm also sure there will be heightened interest and curiosity about Leno's ratings at 10pm, but unfortunately that's not the kind of curiosity we can satisfy until the show begins airing in September.

 
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