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NBC affiliate plans to dump Jay Leno

LenoUPDATED: 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 next fall.

WHDH Channel 7 in Boston announced 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 higherratings than Leno.

"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. "It will be detrimental to our 11 o'clock. Itwill 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 rebellion of dumping NBC's fall scheduling plans into the BostonHarbor could turn into a nightmare scenario for the network if other affiliates attempt to join the cause. Even Boston defecting by itself is an issue -- it's the seventh-largest market.

"NBC needs all hands on deck to make this change work for them," said Bill Carroll, vp director ofprogramming for Katz Television Group. "But NBC has inferred that their decision was a business decision to benefit NBC and not necessarily their affiliates and their key late newscasts, so stations will look at their own interests and may make decisions in a similar fashion. By announcing early, Boston may spur others to follow and make them less of a target. And they can also get a sense of the true feelings of the rest of the affiliate body to this drastic change."

The decision quickly drew fighting words from NBC's TV Network president John Eck:

"WHDH's move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contractwith NBC. If theypersist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation. We have a number ofother strong options in the Boston market, including using our existingbroadcast 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 at11 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.

NBC owns a Telemundo affiliate in the area that it could in theoryrelaunch as an NBC station. Sources said that there is at least onestation up for sale in the Boston market.

"If anyone is looking to buy a station in Boston or any othermarket, there couldn’t be a better time to buy than now," said FrankKalil, president of station broker Kalil & Co. "Prices are lowconcurrent with the economy which is turning as we speak and stationvalues have no place to go but up."

(Folks, you heard it here first. There's never been a better time to buy a slightly used Boston affiliate, and at these prices they won't last.)

In an effort to show that this is an isolated incident and a not a wider trend,Michael Fiorile, chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board, issued astatement in support of NBC's plans.

"The NBC affiliates are very excited about the new Leno showweeknights 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 yankingKRON's NBC affiliation. Young recently filed for bankruptcy.

The broadcaster has been meeting with stations over the past weeks on tweaking the format ofLeno's primetime show to minimize viewership dropoff into their local news. But in a way, part of the challenge here remains 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.. If the network's primetime programming were stronger and funneling a larger audience into the planned Leno hour, stations would presumably have more confidence about the change. Yet WHDH's move to dump the program so soon is somewhat surprising given thatBoston is one of Leno's strongest markets.

NBC is certain to use its entire available arsenal to fight WHDH's decision. NBC cannot keep Leno off the air in such a major market, and any perceived weakness in its response to the affiliate could inspire other disgruntled stations to push against their late-night plans as well.

"It’s certainly going to start others thinking about [defying NBC],"Carroll said. "There was a parent-child relationship 25 years agobetween the network and the affiliates, and that’s long gone. But Iwould think the majority of affiliate contracts don’t have that kind offlexibility."

The news broke right between NBC Universal's scoring a settlement victory in itsdispute over "Project Runway" moving to Lifetime, and Thursday's stellar performance of the "ER" series finale -- the latter headline taking on a new context this morning due to the show's strong 10 p.m. legacy.

The problem for NBC is there's a certain degree of public and industry sentiment on the side of the Boston affiliate. Few are excited to see the network remove scripted programming from 10 p.m. -- and that's including those rooting for NBC to succeed. It's part nostalgia, part business, but there's something about the maneuver that's like watching a friend give up on a longtime goal. Even though many agree with the network's executives that the play financially makes sense. 

"Putting Leno at 10 p.m. was brilliant," one agent noted. "NBC will never win 10 p.m. But they will never lose money." -- With additional reporting by Nellie Andreeva

UPDATE: The empire strikes back: NBC says Leno will air in Boston (one way or another)

NEW:  'ER' concludes on powerful ratings note

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