NBC's Boston affiliate says no to primetime Leno

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In a worrisome sign for NBC’s game-changing primetime makeover plans, a Boston affiliate is refusing to air Jay Leno’s new 10 p.m. talk show in the fall.

Comedian Jay Leno hosts the 30th Carousel of Hope gala in Beverly Hills, California October 25, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

WHDH Channel 7 in Leno’s hometown said it will air its own hourlong local newscast instead.

Explaining the move to the Boston Globe, station owner Ed Ansin said he believes a newscast will draw higher ratings than Leno.

“We feel we have a real opportunity with running the news at 10 p.m.,” Ansin said. “We don’t think the Leno show is going to be effective in primetime. It will be detrimental to our 11 o’clock. It will be very adverse to our finances. It fundamentally is a better financial plan for us. We are already suffering from weak lead-ins.”

Ansin’s rebellious dumping of NBC’s late-night plans into the Boston Harbor could turn into a worst-case scenario for NBC if other affiliates attempt to join the cause. But regardless of what other stations do, Boston’s defection is significant -- it’s the country’s seventh-largest television market.

The decision quickly drew fighting words from NBC, whose TV Network president, John Eck, released this statement: “WHDH’s move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC. 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.”

Ansin countered to the Globe that his affiliate contract is unlike those of other stations and allows him the option of not airing Leno. He also told the paper that the Sunbeam-owned WHDH asked NBC for permission to air Leno at 11 p.m., but the network refused. So Ansin intends to air two newscasts going into Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” at 11:35 p.m.

To show that this is an isolated incident and not a wider trend, NBC Affiliate Board chairman Michael Fiorile issued a statement in support of NBC’s plans.

“The NBC affiliates are very excited about the new Leno show weeknights at 10 p.m.,” Fiorile said.

The last time NBC got into a war with a local station was 2000, when Young Broadcasting outbid NBC for San Francisco-based KRON. The network retaliated by buying a nearby station and yanking KRON’s NBC affiliation. Young recently filed for bankruptcy.

NBC affiliates have shared concern over potential weakening of the lead-in for their late local news. Still, stations have been working with NBC over the past weeks on tweaking the format of Leno’s primetime show to minimize the drop-off, and WHDH’s move to dump the program so early is surprising given that Boston is one of Leno’s strongest markets.