NBC vows to stand its ground, and pull network affiliation, if necessary, if a Boston station insists on running a local newscast instead of the new Jay Leno show at 10 p.m. this fall, insiders say. WHDH-TV in Boston — the seventh largest market in the country and the hometown to both Leno and Conan O’Brien – rocked the TV industry last night with word that it didn’t want to air a Monday-through-Friday program featuring the former Tonight Show host because "we don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in prime time," station owner Ed Ansin told a Boston newspaper Thursday. "It will be detrimental to our 11 o’clock. It will be very adverse to our finances." Ansin reportedly asked NBC if he could run Leno at 11 p.m. but was denied. He also claims his contract with NBC allows him to choose to preempt Leno in the fall. (EW could not reach Ansin this morning.)
NBC reacted swiftly with a barrage of threats from both its station and legal honchos. "That is absolutely wrong [about the affiliation contract]," NBC Universal General Counsel Rick Cotton said via a statement. "It is clear that WHDH is contractually required to air NBC programming as scheduled by the network."
Another statement, from NBC TV Network president John Eck, added: "WHDH’s move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract. 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 network has already looked into turning its Boston Telemundo station, WNEU, into an NBC affiliate. But WNEU doesn’t have the same kind of reach as WHDH, which is the largest independently owned and operated NBC affiliate in the country. For now, it appears Ansin is not bowing to threats and will proceed without Leno in the fall (his plans are to run local news from 10-11:30 p.m. as a lead-in to O’Brien). The station’s ratings for its 11 p.m. newscast have dropped in recent years and "we are already suffering from weak lead-ins [from network programming]," Ansin told the Boston Globe.
Insiders at competing networks all agreed that NBC can’t give in to WHDH or it’ll risk triggering "an avalanche" with its other affiliates. "If you allow a station to air Leno out of pattern [at 11], it’ll open the floodgates," says one-high level suit at a competing Big Four network. "They have to act quickly. You have to believe that some other station will call up and say, ‘You know what? We’re doing it, too.’"
NBC does have other options, though they seem remote. The network could provide WHDH with financial incentives to keep Leno at 10, but again, that could snowball into an issue with other stations as well. It could also try to peddle the Leno show to the CBS-operated WSBK, an independent station in the market. Flipping the Telemundo station into a new NBC affiliate seems more likely — even if the network risks the ire of Hispanic viewers (in response, NBC could keep some Spanish-language programming on the station).
But transferring affiliations in Boston may not be as easy as it sounds. The CW had its work cut out for it when it merged the UPN and WB networks a few years back. "It is really hard to convert an audience to a network," says another high-ranking exec. "It takes time. Even if NBC does find another station, it may pale in comparison."
It’s unclear at this time whether Leno himself will appeal to the WHDH station owner, though he’ll certainly be in shouting distance soon to try; an NBC insider says the late-night host is expected to make an appearance in Boston Monday to help out a local comedian. In the meantime, it appears no other NBC stations are following WHDH’s lead.