WHDH Channel 7, Boston's NBC affiliate, is refusing to air host Jay Leno's new talk show in the lucrative 10 p.m. hour in favor of its own hour-long local news show, and NBC doesn't like it one bit.
"WHDH's move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC," said John Eck, president of NBC TV Network. "If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation. We have a number of other strong options in the Boston market, including using our existing broadcast license to launch an NBC owned and operated station."
The decision to program local news instead of the talk show starring Leno, the longtime host of the Tonight Show who grew up in Andover, follows the runaway success of the 10 p.m newscast on rival WFXT-TV Channel 25, Boston's Fox outlet. The WFXT news averaged 210,600 total viewers in the March ratings sweeps, while the 10 p.m. newscast on WHDH sister station WLVI-TV (Channel 56) drew 43,800 total viewers. On some nights, WFXT's newscast beats network shows in the city, with help from lead-ins such as "American Idol" and "House.''
Leno's new show is scheduled to launch in September.
Ed Ansin, owner of WHDH and WLVI, believes a local newscast at 10:00 p.m., which he plans to simulcast on both stations, will draw better ratings than Leno would.
"We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m. We don't think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime," Ansin said yesterday. "It will be detrimental to our 11 o'clock. It will be very adverse to our finances."
Ansin wants to air Leno's new show at 11 p.m., but he said that NBC told him that "would not be feasible." For now, Ansin doesn't plan to air Leno at all, instead airing a local news show at 10 p.m., following it with the current news half-hour broadcast at 11; and airing Conan O'Brien's show at 11:35 p.m. when it begins this summer.
"There are a lot more viewers available at 10 o'clock,'' added Ansin who also owns Miami's WSVN-TV (Channel 7) a Fox affiliate that reaps in strong ratings and revenue with its 10 o'clock newscast. Said Ansin, "It fundamentally is a better financial plan for us." Of WHDH, he added, "We are already suffering from weak lead-ins."
After dominating the lucrative 11 p.m. news race for more than a decade with its flashy graphics and focus on spots news, WHDH has seen ratings for its 11 p.m. newscast plummet to third place in the past year, behind WBZ-TV Channel 4 and WCVB-TV Channel 5. The station laid off its executive news producer and two anchors, including longtime newsman Randy Price, who was replaced by Kim Khazei.
The station recently unveiled its late night anchor team of Khazei and Frances Rivera - the only female pair on a Boston anchor desk. Channel 7 also redesigned its news desk and revamped its graphics to broadcast in high-definition.
Industry officials have noted that having Leno at 10 p.m. would cost a fraction of what a network might pay for a scripted series in that hour. Not airing Leno in primetime in the country's seventh largest market could cost NBC much-needed ratings. The network has been in a ratings slump in recent years.
NBC officials are hopeful about Leno's arrival in primetime. His show will be similar to "The Tonight Show," which is a late-night ratings leader.
"The NBC affiliates are very excited about the new Leno show weeknights at 10 p.m.,'' Michael Fiorile NBC Affiliate Board Chairman, said yesterday in a statement to the Globe. "Jay is a true star with enormous appeal. We've been engaged in an open dialogue with NBC about the format of the show, and we’re looking forward to working with Jay and the entire team to make it a huge success."
Ansin said his contract with NBC differs from those of other affiliates who are owned and operated by the network.
"We have a unique agreement with NBC, which is unlike the standard affiliate agreement,'' said Ansin. "We have the option of not airing Leno at 10 'clock." (By Johnny Diaz, Globe staff)