NBC's Boston affiliate says no to Leno

WHDH will air newscast instead of 10 p.m. talk show

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.

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 higher ratings 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. 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 rebellion of dumping NBC's fall scheduling plans into the Boston Harbor 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 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."

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 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.

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

"If anyone is looking to buy a station in Boston or any other market, there couldn't be a better time to buy than now," said Frank Kalil, president of station broker Kalil & Co. "Prices are low concurrent with the economy which is turning as we speak and station values have no place to go but up."

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 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.

The broadcaster has been meeting with stations over the past weeks on tweaking the format of Leno's primetime show to minimize viewership drop-off 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 that Boston is one of Leno's strongest markets.

NBC is certain to use its entire available arsenal to combat WHDH's decision. The network 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.

The dark cloud comes right after NBC's moment in the sun Wednesday when the network's parent company, NBC Universal, scored a victory in its dispute over "Project Runway" moving to Lifetime.