As viewers flee, Leno's job security slips along with ratings

Jay Leno's move to prime time was viewed by some as a savvy show business decision. A popular, well-known comedian, the former host of the Tonight Show would provide NBC with a cheap, talk-show alternative to the network's previous line-up of dramatic programming, which is costly to produce. Or so it was thought.

With ratings numbers continuing to fall, however, NBC affiliates aren't feeling nearly as sanguine as the network itself, the New York Post reports. After a solid start last month, ratings have a slipped to a quarter of what they once were. That has local news programs nervous, as they count on viewers of 10 P.M. shows to stick around for the 11 P.M. news. (Unless you're in the Central or Mountain times zones, where everything is on an hour earlier.)
Viewership of 11 P.M. newscasts has tanked in more than three-fourths of the top 56 metered TV markets, falling an average 13% in the first four weeks of the season, the Post reported. The numbers are even worse in 10 of the top 25 markets, where ratings have slipped 22% in New York; 30% in Miami; and 37% in Philadelphia.

Compare those late-night newscast results to those of competitor ABC, where viewership is down 10%, while ratings for CBS are up 8%. NBC's greater ratings slippage is leaving some local station managers to predict that the clock is ticking on Leno, and that he may be out of a job by February should ratings not improve.

But NBC is standing by Leno, saying that the reasons behind ratings fall are bigger than the lantern-jawed comedian himself. "We believe in the combination of a bankable star like Jay Leno hosting an exciting, topical show five nights a week and are committed to continuing to engage with our affiliates in ways to make that relationship work," an NBC spokesman told the Post.

The strategy sounds similar to one CBS adopted when Katie Couric took over the CBS Evening News in 2006. After a bang-up start, ratings slipped, but CBS executives argued the decision to put Couric in the anchor was a long-term strategy. Still, three years on Couric still trails the competition at NBC and ABC.

NBC is appeasing local affiliates by offering greater ad time during Leno's show, and as both he and Couric with their multimillion- dollar contracts can attest, money does much to soothe the pain of losing.
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