Baltimore may be called Charm City, but for WBAL -- the local television station that carries NBC's "The Jay Leno Show" -- there isn't much to smile about lately.
Usually, WBAL is in a neck-and-neck race for viewers against arch rival WJZ. But since NBC debuted "The Jay Leno Show" in prime time five weeks ago, the station's 11 p.m. newscast -- where silver-haired Rod Daniels' 25-year run as anchor is the longest in Baltimore history -- has been shellacked in the ratings. Now WBAL is a distant second.
Call it the Leno effect. NBC's controversial decision to shift the late-night talk show host to 10 p.m. has been billed as a savvy business move that enabled NBC to substitute a low-cost talk show for expensive scripted dramas. But now it's playing havoc with many of NBC's more than 200 affiliates, where Leno's weaker "lead-in" is undermining audiences of 11 p.m. newscasts. News programs are crucial for local stations, which draw upon them for a third of their revenue.
Leno's new show averaged about 5.6 million viewers through the first four days of last week, less than half the audience it attracted when it premiered and more than a third less than the audience that NBC drew last season with its longtime schedule of drama shows. The network says the declines are in line with expectations and cautions patience as viewers discover the new time slot for the talk show king.
Local stations, whose goodwill the network depends upon to keep Leno's show on in every market, could soon grow antsy. Already hit by the recession, which has dried up advertising by such onetime mainstays as auto dealerships, retailers and mortgage companies, NBC affiliates may not be able to tolerate the financial pain that Leno is causing to their late-night news programs -- and may be forced to consider their own program alternative for the 10 p.m. hour.
The Leno conundrum comes at a delicate time for NBC. The network's parent company, General Electric Co., has been in negotiations with Comcast Corp. to sell GE's controlling stake in NBC Universal. On a conference call with analysts Friday to discuss the industrial conglomerate's third-quarter results, GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin said, "Four weeks in, 'The Jay Leno Show' is exceeding our ratings estimates, as are Conan [O'Brien] and [Jimmy] Fallon. So we are happy with the 10 o'clock and late-night performance."
NBC has maintained that programming Leno five nights a week in prime time is more about economics than ratings. A talk show is less costly to produce than the hourlong dramas the network used to air. That being the case, Leno does not have to do as well as NBC's dramas did for the move to be a financial success.
Also, Leno will be on with original episodes for about 46 weeks of the year compared with the 22 to 24 weeks of original episodes a network gets from a typical drama show.
But while that may be fine for NBC, affiliates need strong 10 p.m. programs to boost their late news.
"I don't think anybody is going to say having Jay Leno at the 10 o'clock hour has been a positive," said Bill Carroll, a vice president at Katz Television Group, a media buying and consulting firm that advises local stations on programming.
NBC disputes that Leno alone is to blame for the headaches of affiliates.
"There is erosion in broadcast television each year," said Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.
But NBC is eroding at a faster pace than its competition. ABC is off only 9% in the 10 o'clock hour in viewers while CBS is up 1%. Gaspin said there could be other issues, such as whether an affiliate is spending the same amount of time and money promoting local news as in the past.
"There are too many variables," he said.
For some affiliates, however, the only thing that has changed is NBC.
"I'm not pleased with what Leno is doing. I don't think anybody is," said Craig Allison, vice president and general manager of KSHB in Kansas City, Mo. Allison's late news is off slightly from where it was a year ago, and he's anxious about the months ahead.
"I don't think any NBC affiliate wanted to wake up in the fall with a weaker lead-in to their late news," Allison said.
To be sure, NBC has long argued that the ultimate test for "The Jay Leno Show" will come when he is up against reruns on the other networks.
Indeed, Leno averaged almost 12 million viewers during the first week of his new show -- a level reached in part thanks to weeks of ceaseless pre-premiere promotion by the network. Even if Leno does pick up some audience when his competition takes a break, there is no guarantee that all the viewers that left NBC and its stations will come flocking back.
Recognizing that its affiliates probably would feel it in the wallet as a result of Leno being put in prime time, NBC gave the affiliates additional commercial time to sell, which has bought the network some support. Even one of the most vocal critics of the Leno move is now keeping silent. Ed Ansin, who threatened publicly last spring not to carry Leno on his Boston station WHDH and then backed down when NBC threatened to yank his affiliation, declined to comment.
Although Leno is a Massachusetts native, that's not helping him in Beantown. So far this month, WHDH's late-news ratings have fallen 17% compared with last October.
Not every NBC affiliate is singing the blues, however.
"We're quite pleased," said Brooke Spectorsky, longtime president and general manager of WKYC in Cleveland. So far the station's news performance is flat compared with a year ago, although there are "still days in which you squirm a little."
In Baltimore, where WBAL has been engaged for years in a duel with WJZ for news supremacy, the station has gone from No. 1 in local news to a rapidly falling No. 2. The local media quickly picked up on the reordering.
"The battle appears to be over in the new post-Leno era," longtime Baltimore Sun TV columnist David Zurawik recently wrote.
Key to the decline of WBAL's 11 p.m. newscast has been Leno's performance in the last quarter hour of his show, which is attracting 51,400 fewer households than a year ago.
Although all three stations in Baltimore have seen the audience for their 11 p.m. news slip in the last year, the rate of decline for WBAL is much steeper, implying it is more than a case of general viewer erosion.
But WBAL's president and general manager, Jordan Wertlieb, isn't worried yet.
"People want to declare the game over because we are down a couple of runs after the first inning. There is a long way to go," he said. "We look at this as a 52-week strategy."
If Leno's ratings don't pick up, then it remains to be seen what options the affiliates will have.
The relationship between networks and affiliates has always been something of a shotgun marriage. Affiliates need programming from the networks and the networks need local stations to sell advertising nationally. Most of the leverage is held by the networks, as Ansin found out when he made what turned out to be an empty threat to not carry Leno. NBC promptly returned fire, warning him that his station could lose its affiliation and face legal consequences.
As poorly as third-ranked NBC may be doing, the value of affiliation with a network is not to be understated. Any station that loses its affiliation would have to spend heavily to replace programming that the network provides.
There are theories that if the bulk of affiliates start to suffer heavy financial setbacks, NBC could pull Leno back a half-hour and the stations could start their local news at 10 p.m instead. But that seems a long shot because many stations would be reluctant to play with their bulwark 11 p.m. newscasts. Another unlikely possibility is the network could move Leno to 8 p.m.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.