Heeere’s . . . Kelly?: Another Sign of Troubled Times : Television: Financial problems are the reasons behind Johnny Carson’s later starting time on NBC and Sports Illustrated buying a prime-time hour from ABC.
Viewers tuning into KNBC Channel 4 at 11:30 tonight expecting the familiar “Tonight Show” theme, Ed McMahon reading the list of the show’s guests and Johnny Carson walking through the familiar multicolored curtain will instead see John Beard and Kelly Lange anchoring the final five minutes of their newscast.
Earlier tonight in the Eastern and Central time zones, ABC will broadcast a program previewing (some might say hyping) the NFL season. But instead of being an ABC production, as in the past two years, this is from Sports Illustrated, which bought an hour of prime time, resold the commercial time, contracted for the services of the “Monday Night Football” announcing crew to serve as hosts and hired an outside company to produce “Sports Illustrated Pro Football Preview.”
Both the later start of “The Tonight Show” and ABC’s rare decision to sell an hour of prime time are examples of how broadcast television’s financial problems are impacting what viewers see.
“The Tonight Show’s” 11:35 p.m. start was made so that NBC’s affiliates, hit by a recession-induced advertising slump, could have additional commercial time to sell on their local newscasts.
Johnny Carson does not approve of the latest time shift, announced at the May affiliates meeting in New York City.
“It’s a bad move,” Carson told the Washington Post in June. “I don’t like the affiliates nibbling away at late-night television. Before you know it, they’ll be delaying ‘The Tonight Show’ until midnight. And that will change it from what it has always been.”
Some affiliates reportedly did want a midnight start, so they could air half-hour syndicated programs between 11:30 p.m. and midnight and have commercial time to sell then. NBC, with well-documented financial troubles of its own, declined the later start, fearing a loss of both viewers and advertising dollars to one of its most profitable and popular series.
“Tonight’s” 11:35 p.m. start will expand KNBC’s 11 p.m. newscast to 35 minutes. KNBC news director Nancy Valenta declined to be interviewed about how the station will utilize the extra time. It is expected there will be four more minutes of news and an additional minute of commercials.
The 11:35 p.m. start for “The Tonight Show” means “Late Night With David Letterman” will begin at 12:35 a.m. and “Later With Bob Costas” at 1:35 a.m.
The Sports Illustrated-ABC affiliation is a marriage between a magazine seeking increased TV exposure and a cost-conscious network seeking to minimize its risks of a loss.
Although it is rare in contemporary television for a network to sell an hour of prime time to a single source, David Downs, vice president for programming at ABC Sports, said that the practice is “not that unusual” in sports programming.
“Whenever we have an opportunity to eliminate risk and the programming is good enough, we’ll certainly consider it,” Downs said. “We still are at a position to sell between 90% and 95% of the dollars that come into our market, but clearly there are times where people have greater ability to sell (commercials) because they have leverage with clients and they’re willing to put a priority on selling them because we’ve got so many other things to sell.”
Downs said some of the auto races and “a quarter” of the golf tournaments on ABC are other instances where a block of time is bought and the event is produced by outside companies. The trend will increase this winter: Raycom Sports, a Charlotte, N.C.-based syndicator, has purchased 11 time slots from ABC to produce college basketball games for the network.
“Sports Illustrated Pro Football Preview,” which will precede the New York Giants-San Francisco 49ers game in the Eastern and Central time zones and is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. on KABC Channel 7 in Los Angeles, is the magazine’s first prime-time television venture.
However, this is not Sports Illustrated’s first television project. It had a syndicated series in the 1970s, a cable program in the 1980s and a combination live-action and animated children’s show on NBC earlier this year.
“We’re not going to make a fortune on this--face it, no one is making a fortune in television,” Sports Illustrated publisher Mark Mulvoy said. “To us, it’s just a good way of exposing Sports Illustrated and getting some of our advertisers into the marketplace.”
The decision to buy the time (neither party would disclose the price) came in part to guarantee editorial independence.
“We position ourselves journalistically against television,” Mulvoy said. “We’ve established ourselves pretty well as the conscience of sport. Television has abdicated any role of journalism. We wouldn’t do anything that is not up to the standards and journalistic priorities of SI. Advertisers don’t tell us not to run stories like they can do on television.”
Firms seeking to buy commercials on the ABC show also had to purchase a one-page advertisement in a special advertising section on “Monday Night Football” in the current Sports Illustrated. A full-page ad costs about $135,000, Mulvoy said. Organizations agreeing to the deal include Coors, General Motors, the U.S. Army, Pepsi and Nike.