NBC strikes back over Leno in Boston

Net exec adamant that 10 p.m. talk show will air in market

Leno tussle isn't the first for WHDH owner

NBC is adamant that it will be victorious in the surprise standoff with a rebelling Boston station that is refusing to air Jay Leno's primetime talk show in the fall.

"Jay Leno fans will not be disappointed," NBC TV Network president John Eck said. "Make no mistake. The new Leno show will air at 10 p.m. weeknights in the Boston market on NBC."

WHDH's Thursday announcement that it plans to replace Leno's 10 p.m. show with a local newscast raised the question over how much control affiliate stations have over primetime.

WHDH owner Ed Ansin was quoted as saying his station can opt not to air NBC's new show because it "will be very adverse to our finances." But Jack Goodman, former general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, sided with NBC, which says a station can't permanently drop network programming.

"An affiliation agreement usually allows affiliates to interrupt for breaking news or for something that is inappropriate," said Goodman, who is not involved in the dispute but represents several other NBC affiliates. "But this is five nights a week all year long. You can't just decide that something is crap."

A few years ago, a lobbying group called the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance filed a petition with the FCC, hoping to clarify affiliates' rights when it comes to pre-empting. That effort didn't get far, and, last year, affiliates signed an agreement saying they wouldn't try to go around their deals.

NBC has threatened to strip WHDH of its affiliation if its refuses to air Leno. The network is exploring alternatives, including transferring the NBC programming to the NBC Universal-owned Telemundo station in the market or align with another station.

"This is a very gutsy thing to do in a market where NBC owns another station," Goodman said.

"We have received unsolicited phone calls from three stations in the Boston market that have expressed interest in affiliating with us," an NBC source said.

WHDH declined comment. Sources said both parties are in talks "with a possible legal conclusion."

For NBC, the situation is deeply frustrating, especially the timing of it. The news broke on the night of its "ER" series finale, whose record ratings were overshadowed by the WHDH defection.

More importantly, the confrontation came a month before NBC has to pitch its fall lineup, including the Leno show, to advertisers.

Even if successful in squashing the Boston rebellion, the downside is that NBC has to fight this battle at all. In terms of both industry and public relations, having to strong-arm a team member isn't a story NBC wants right now.

"NBC needs all hands on deck to make this change work for them," said Bill Carroll, vp director of programming 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."

Network sources said that no other affils have signaled an intention to rebel against the Leno plan.

"Nobody understands why (Ansin) is doing this," a network source said. "It makes no sense. Even if this was your play, why do it this far out? It's bizarre. There are 229 NBC affiliates that disagree with that one affiliate."

Despite the commotion, NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel believes the stations will be pleased with the Leno show.

"I think this show will be more competitive than people suspect," he said. "Leno is going to be new 46 weeks a year while broadcast is going to continue to erode. My colleague in Boston is wrong."

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.