The simmering controversy about comic Jay Leno's low 10 p.m. viewership has hit home for WFLA-Ch. 8, as figures show the former Tonight Show host helped cost Tampa's NBC affiliate first place in the ratings for its 11 p.m. newscast.
That's because The Jay Leno Show, after a strong start, has lost 22 percent of viewers age 25 to 54 compared to last year. WFLA's 11 p.m. newscast has seen a similar 18 percent drop.
The chief beneficiary has been rival WTSP-Ch. 10, which saw its 11 p.m. ratings among key viewers jump 46 percent when CBS' popular fall prime-time schedule returned to new episodes. Now WTSP leads the news ratings at 11 p.m., followed by WFLA, Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 and ABC station WFTS-Ch. 28.
This is what critics predicted when NBC announced it would offer Leno weeknights at 10 p.m. to keep him at the network after leaving the Tonight Show. And though NBC may make money because Leno's show is cheaper, local stations may pay the price in lower ratings for their newscasts.
"In the Tampa market, late news historically is very much dependent on the strength of the prime lead-in," wrote WFLA research director Jennifer Yarter in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. WFLA general manager Mike Pumo did not return phone calls for comment.
WFLA isn't alone. According to the New York Post: "Ratings for late newscasts at NBC affiliates in 44 of the top 56 metered markets are down this year … with New York down 22 percent, Philadelphia off 37 percent and Miami down 30 percent."
Ratings for Leno's Tonight Show successor Conan O'Brien also are down 47 percent from last year, or about 2 million viewers, according to the New York Times. Other adult-oriented NBC shows such as Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU have foundered in 9 p.m. time slots, pushed to air earlier by Leno.
The big test for Leno may come at Christmas, when the show airs against rivals' moribund holiday schedules.
But take it from CBS, which has yet to see evening news anchor Katie Couric climb out of last place: Sometimes bad numbers never get much better.