WTHR, WISH in dog fight for 11 p.m. news ratings

October 24, 2009

The disappointing debut of “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. on NBC has hammered ratings for the 11 p.m. newscast of local affiliate WTHR-TV Channel 13, cutting its average audience by nearly half. The CBS affiliate, WISH-TV Channel 8, has been the benefactor, taking WTHR’s top spot at that hour.

That’s no small shift, given WTHR’s domination of news ratings the last decade. Local media buyers expect the battle for late-night supremacy to intensify during November sweeps.

November is one of four month-long periods when New York-based Nielsen Media Research gathers broad TV viewership data that is used by stations to set advertising prices for the months ahead.

“These numbers are something we have a high interest in, and certainly could have an impact on the way advertising dollars are spent,” said Elizabeth Mann, media supervisor in the local office of Optimedia.

Local leaders for Optimedia, which buys local TV time for more than a half dozen clients, will wait for more detailed demographic data to be released before adjusting ad buys, Mann said.

“We’ll be looking closely at the 25-to-54 and the 18-to-49 age sets, and see how the programs skew male and female,” she said.

Jay Leno exited “The Tonight Show”—now hosted by Conan O’Brien—and moved to an earlier time slot with his new show Sept. 14. NBC’s money-saving motive is clear. Producing a talk show such as Leno’s costs about one-fourth that of a scripted drama or sitcom.

Long gone are the days when NBC dominated late prime time with shows like “L.A. Law” and “ER.” Network executives are betting the Leno show will keep NBC competitive at a lower cost.

But NBC affiliates are getting clobbered nationwide. During the 10 p.m. hour, shows like CBS’ “The Good Wife” and “NCIS” are drawing an audience double the size of Leno’s, which has registered ratings of 4.5 to 5.5 in the show’s first month.

Nationally, one rating point equals 1.1 million TV households.

“The late local news is so dependent on lead-in programming, that this is turning out to be a big disaster for NBC affiliates,” said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communications and a longtime consultant to the television industry. “It could be much worse for WTHR if its local news didn’t have such a strong brand. Other NBC affiliates—especially in the Midwest where Leno doesn’t do that well—are getting hurt a lot worse.”

WTHR’s 11 p.m. local newscast has seen its average weekly rating drop from a 9.5 on the week of Sept. 7—the week before the Leno lead-in debuted—to 5 during the week of Oct. 12, according to Nielsen data.

During the same period, WISH has increased its rating from 5.3 to 6.7, peaking at 8 during the week of Sept. 28, according to Nielsen.

WRTV-TV Channel 6 has held steady in the time slot, with average weekly ratings ranging from 3.3 to 3.7 from Sept. 7 to Oct. 12.

Each rating point equates to 10,720 TV households in the central Indiana market.

Local TV news is critical because ads sold during newscasts make up 40 percent to 60 percent of a local affiliate’s revenue, and it’s one of the few time slots in which the local stations control the ad inventory.

WISH officials have big plans to take advantage of the situation, with increased promotions and beefed-up news coverage. WISH General Manager Jeff White expects the November sweeps, especially for the 11 p.m. news, to be a “dog fight.”

“The November sweeps will be one where WTHR zeroes in on the 11 p.m. news and tries to eliminate the deficit,” White said. “And we’re going to zero in to capitalize on this advantage. We think this will be a great platform to grow our audiences for our other newscasts.”

WTHR is still the ratings leader during the morning, noon and late-afternoon newscasts, and WTHR General Manager Jim Tellus said he isn’t overly concerned about the initial 11 p.m. numbers.

“I think we’ll have to wait until a book or two is out to know what the real picture is going to be,” he said.

Like White, Tellus promises WTHR will be aggressive in November, with several investigative stories that have been months in the making.

“We think we have some stories that will really dominate the water-cooler conversations in November,” Tellus said. “And we’ll be doing some heavy promotion around those pieces.”

Tellus and NBC officials also see a key upside to Leno’s show as a lead-in. Angela Bromstad, NBC’s prime-time entertainment president, pointed out that Leno will have new shows 46 weeks of the year, while the other network’s scripted shows will be new only 22 or 23 weeks per year.

“I think what is going to be a success for Leno is … its 52-week cumulative rating for the show,” Bromstad said.

Leno has made some tweaks to hook viewers, including a longer monologue so viewers won’t jump to a new program afterward, and the inclusion of musical acts—such as JayZ, Rihanna and Kanye West—to draw a younger audience.

Berkovitz isn’t convinced.

“NBC has to stay with this,” he said. “They’ve made a year-long commitment to Jay Leno. Besides if they abandon this strategy now, they’re admitting that they botched it, and that would be a real disaster.”

Despite what Leno does in the long run, WTHR’s Tellus is optimistic his station has a chance to regain 11 p.m. supremacy. He noted that, while WTHR’s year-over-year rating in October has dropped, the station’s 11 p.m. news rating is considerably higher than it is during the last half hour of the Leno show.

“That shows we have loyal viewers, and people are switching over from other networks to watch our news,” Tellus said. “As the year progresses, we expect that to continue.”•


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