'Leno effect' to linger for months

Columbia stations wonder where all the viewers at 10 p.m. went

01/22/2010 12:00 AM

01/22/2010 2:15 AM

After a severance deal with NBC announced Thursday, Conan O'Brien will move on from "The Tonight Show," and Jay Leno will move back to his comfortable 11:35 p.m. time slot.

But the network ratings meltdown, what station managers refer to as the "Leno effect," will linger in the local market for months.

"The whole thing has been a grand experiment," said Donita Todd, vice president and general manager of Columbia's NBC affiliate WIS-10. "The problem was just not enough people were watching."

Local news stations count on the networks to deliver programming that will attract - and retain - viewers for the late news. At the 10 p.m. slot, Leno's prime-time show was a weak lead-in, and that caused local broadcasters around the nation to make noise.

Here, the numbers don't lie. From November 2008 to November 2009, in the 25 to 54 adult demographic, NBC dropped from a 16.7 share to a 5.8 share, a 65 percent decline, at 10 p.m.

The result: WIS lost viewers for its 11 p.m. newscast in the same sample period - but its overall ratings dominance continues.

At 11 p.m. in November 2008, WIS had a 30.8 share of households in the market. It's closest competitor, CBS affiliate WLTX-19, had a 20.5. For November 2009, WIS had a 25.4 to WLTX's 18.6, as both stations lost viewers.

"We, quite frankly, did better than other stations," Todd said. "Some stations lost half their audience."

Todd said the station was wary of the Leno-to-prime-time experiment, a move she termed "half-baked."

"It was not to revolutionize TV, but to save money. And to save Jay Leno," she said. "We were very concerned about that going in."

The station's pre-emptive move was to make the 11 p.m. newscast, anchored by Judi Gatson and Ben Hoover, "appointment" TV. (Recent commercials depict Gatson and Hoover setting up in a couple's living room to deliver the news.)

"We can no longer depend on the network," Todd said.

The ripples have been felt by others in the market and the state.

"It just hurt television," said Rich O'Dell, WLTX's general manager. "I think it was an ill-advised move. The ratings proved that's not what people wanted."

Will TV viewing numbers return to normal? A better question: Where did all the viewers at 10 p.m. go?

WACH-57, the Fox affiliate which airs news at 10 p.m., remained flat, as did CBS. So where are the viewers going to come back from: Netflix, DVR or water-cooler shows like Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise?

"That's kind of a question that people have been trying to figure out," said Sara Anders, a media planner and buyer for Chernoff Newman. "It's kind of a mystery and it's difficult to tell from the numbers, especially with this being a diary market."

Anders, who has been tracking TV trends in the Columbia for several years, said cable networks like USA and TNT, which offer original programming at 10 p.m., have drawn viewers.

CBS, the home of procedurals like the "CSI" and "NCIS" franchises, is a model of stability. But the station didn't benefit from the NBC debacle.

"We prefer everybody to be strong," O'Dell said. "Everybody wants to win, but everybody wants the environment to be strong."

WMBF, the NBC affiliate that broadcasts in Myrtle Beach and Florence, doesn't enjoy the 50 years of market dominance that WIS carries on its shoulders.

The station is just more than a year old.

"We dropped off a little bit," Ted Fortenberry, the station's general manager said. "There's no doubt about it. It hurt us."

Fortenberry added that NBC needed to have shows that will perform better than Leno. Last week, the network announced it will fill the 10 p.m. slot beginning March 1 with such shows as "Law & Order" and "The Marriage Ref," a new comedy reality show produced by Jerry Seinfeld.

Anders thinks viewers will return to NBC.

"I do think we'll see a bump pretty quickly, but really NBC is going to have to develop a strong prime," Anders said.

O'Dell offered another theory on the lost viewers, one others in the TV business don't want to hear.

"One place they could've gone at 10 o'clock is off (away)," he said.

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