Follow up: Is Leno killing late local news?

Remember back last December when yours truly wrote how stripping The Jay Leno Show was a creative counter-programming idea?

I think I might want to retract that statement.

Since it debuted September 14, The Jay Leno Show has been a hot topic of debate in television circles across the country – especially in newsrooms, where Leno leads in to late local news on NBC affiliates.

In a story yours truly posted two weeks ago, a TV News Check article took a pulse of several NBC affiliates and O&Os in some large markets about their late local news ratings and found some – including WMAQ-TV in Chicago here – satisfied with the results thus far.

But two articles that have come out since have told a completely different story.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times had an article on Leno and how ratings for the affiliates’ local news have declined.

Meanwhile, an article written by Lewis Lazare in the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday pointed out WMAQ is not being helped with its Leno lead-in – in fact, the station has tumbled to third place in the 10 p.m. news race in households. This runs somewhat contradictory to what a WMAQ official said in the TV News Check article, saying the station was happy with its late news performance – at least in the 25-54 demos.

Oh, really? Even though WMAQ has a decent adult 25-54 demo and drew a larger number than its sister stations in New York (WNBC) and Los Angeles (KNBC) is doing, its newscasts still trail those of ABC O&O WLS-TV in the same time period. Is WMAQ really happy with where they are at in the ratings here?

Of course, it depends on the strength of the station and the market it is in. In Detroit – WDIV finished first at 11 p.m. over rivals WXYZ-TV (ABC) and WJBK (Fox O&O). WDIV often wins in most local news time periods – not to mention the market’s CBS O&O (WWJ-TV) does not have a local news operation.

During Leno’s second week on the air, KSL-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast tripled his lead-in rating and share. KSL, an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City owned by Bonneville, has dominated the ratings for the last 40 years – whether if it was affiliated with CBS (prior to 1995) or NBC.

Of course, the effect of the prime-time lead-in can be debatable. Back in the 2003-04 season, ABC was in fourth place in prime-time – but WLS was still ranked number one at 10 p.m. and the rest of the day. In fact, when ABC’s prime-time lineup regularly finished in third place in 1986, WLS moved to first place at 10 p.m., defeating market leader WBBM-TV and its been there ever since (locally, ABC’s prime-time lineup in 1986 was a strong second place, thanks to the popularity of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Jeopardy!, and Wheel of Fortune – three shows who have audiences still tuning in to WLS to this very day.)

When CBS was in third place in prime-time in the late 1980’s, its affiliates in Minneapolis (WCCO-TV) and New Orleans (WWL-TV) still ranked number one at 10 p.m. and the rest of the broadcast day – including prime-time.

The Tribune’s Eric Zorn tackled the lead-in issue this past week.On his blog, he had two polls: First off, he asked whether or not viewers are staying tuned to the channel they are watching at 10 p.m. for news. 86 percent of those said “no” – which is bad news for WBBM-TV, which had trouble holding on to strong CBS 9 p.m. lead-ins.

The second poll asked was “What program do they watch at 10 p.m.?” 42 percent of those said The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – more than three times the response of WLS-TV’s newscasts, which were 14 percent. WMAQ had 10 percent of the total; WBBM had only 2 percent.

Late local newscasts’ shares have dwindled for years – as viewers have moved away from “the newscasts of record” and finding their news online or on the cable news channels – not to mention the ongoing focus on “it bleeds, it leads” philosophy of local news without any analysis or substance, which has been on display in Chicago television news for years.

As for the Leno experiment, more evidence is piling up that there is some dissatisfaction in the industry regarding this move. NBC said it would actually make more money, even with lower ratings because the production costs of the show would be lower than what five scripted hour-long dramas would. This relied a lot of people in Hollywood, as NBC seems to be more concerned about counting beans than putting quality product on its airwaves (which it hasn’t done much of lately.) And as far as The Jay Leno Show is concerned, it is the same shtick he did on The Tonight Show – nothing groundbreaking, nothing creative. The only difference is there is no desk and a couple of segments were moved around – not to mention monologues that are much, much worse. NBC said “some elements” of his the old Tonight Show would be incorporated – it looked like all of them were.  Is this NBC’s idea of a “variety” show? If it is, they are sorely mistaken.

So yours truly was wrong on Leno working for NBC as creative counter-programing. But a concern I had about NBC delivering numbers to its late news was indeed valid (but a prediction that KSHB-TV’s newscasts would improve in Kansas City was also way off-base.)

Is it time to declare the Leno strip a failure? I’d say not yet – we do have the November ratings period ahead of us, and yours truly has to be fair. But with the February period being hampered by the Winter Olympics – in which Leno will not air for two weeks – and the next available period to measure his performance won’t be until the May sweeps – the pressure on Leno to improve his numbers will be extraordinary. And if he doesn’t show any ratings improvement, yours truly will declare this a failure on December 1.

Interesting to note Leno used Chicago’s baseball teams as punchlines after they didn’t make the playoffs and when Chicago didn’t win the Olympic bid. It will so satisfying to use him as a punchline since his show is being declared a bigger failure than anything Chicago has done – or didn’t do this year. Karma is a bitch, isn’t it?

I can’t wait for December 1.