With its 11 p.m. news ratings declining and its network partner, NBC, struggling to plug the 10 p.m. programming slot crucial
to those ratings, WTHR-TV Channel 13 finds itself at a precarious crossroads.
“The 11 p.m. news, because most people are already watching TV, is much more reliant on lead-in programming than any other local newscast,” said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communications and a noted TV programming expert. “What NBC does to right its ship will have a huge impact on affiliates like WTHR.”
NBC’s latest experiment—moving former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno to the 10 p.m. slot—was a failure that triggered a nationwide howl from its local affiliates.
NBC, whose ratings already trailed ABC and CBS in prime time, has lost about 5 percent of its prime-time evening viewers since it moved Leno in September. In Indianapolis, “The Jay Leno Show” is watched, on average, by 43,000 households, often less than half the viewership of ABC and CBS shows in the same time slot.
Now, NBC is trying to figure out how to fill the 10 p.m. slot after Leno’s show ends in the middle of February, where to move Leno, and what to do with “The Tonight Show” hosted by Conan O’Brien.
WTHR General Manager Jim Tellus said he hasn’t heard from NBC yet. But he promised WTHR will continue to invest in its local news.
“We’re privately run, and our parent company’s commitment to local news remains strong,” Tellus said. “Like every other station, we’ve had to watch expenses because of the economy, but when it’s not all about the stock price like it is at other stations, there’s a little bit more of a sympathetic ear to spend the money to stay competitive.”
WTHR is owned by Dispatch Co., a family-run operation based in Columbus, Ohio. Dispatch has a track record of investing in its news products, and industry experts said Dispatch officials’ patience with NBC is running thin.
“These local affiliates are just sitting there helplessly waiting to see what NBC will do,” Berkovitz said. “WTHR is more fortunate than most of the NBC affiliates because its news product has been so historically strong. But [WTHR] can’t survive this turmoil within NBC indefinitely.”
The 10 p.m. slot will likely be filled this year with a mix of “The Biggest Loser,” “Law and Order” and “Dateline” episodes, industry sources said, while the network works on more than a dozen pilots.
WTHR, which less than five years ago had ratings equal to those of WISH-TV Channel 8 and WRTV-TV Channel 6 combined at 11 p.m., now sits in second place behind WISH during the late local news.
During the November sweeps,
WTHR attracted 11 percent of the local TV –watching audience at 11 p.m., while WISH attracted 13 percent. Eight percent
tuned into WRTV. WTHR maintained a slim lead in the 25-to-54 age group, a demographic sought after by advertisers.
WTHR still has a lead in the local news ratings at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Local news is critical to local stations, because 40 percent to 60 percent of a station’s revenue comes from advertisements sold during those broadcasts.
Because the audience is robust at 11 p.m. and there are fewer ad spots during the late news than at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., those spots generally carry the highest price for local affiliates. One-fourth or more of local TV news revenue can come during the 11 p.m. newscast.
WTHR in years past has been able to command up to $1,200 for a 30-second spot during the late news, $400 to $600 more than its competitors, local industry sources said.
Demand is down recently—primarily, sources said, because of the economy.
TV ad spending in the Indianapolis market decreased from $197 million in 2008 to $145 million in 2009, according to BIA Financial Network, a Virginia-based broadcasting and investment banking consultancy.•