Leno's talk-show debacle leads to lower WLEX ratings, but not by much

In the months before Nielsen measured Lexington's television viewership in November, much discussion was had about Jay Leno.

Nationally, the comedian's weeknight prime-time talk show has been disastrous for many affiliates' late-night newscasts. In markets where viewership is measured more frequently — Nielsen measures Lexington just four times annually — the newscasts following Leno's show hemorrhaged viewers.

In Boston, NBC affiliate WHDH saw late news ratings fall 17 percent in October compared to a year earlier.

The New York Post reported recently that NBC affiliates in 10 of the top 25 markets have seen late-news viewership declines of more than 13 percent each.

So what impact did Leno have in Lexington?

Not too much.

NBC affiliate WLEX (Channel 18) saw its 11 p.m. newscast rating fall 0.8 points, or 11 percent, to 6.6 rating points. One ratings point equals 1 percent of total television households. While the drop might sound bad, rival CBS affiliate WKYT (Channel 27), which won that time slot, also saw its 11 p.m. news rating drop, in its case 8 percent to 7 rating points.

The drops were part of what was generally a disconcerting book for local station executives, as ratings fell across the majority of newscast time slots.

Analyzing Leno

Bruce Carter, news director at WLEX, has never had much ratings help from NBC, given its weak prime-time programming in recent years. Despite that, he has turned WLEX's 11 p.m. newscast into one that has won its time slot all but twice over the last five years. Those two victories by rival WKYT came last November and in November 2008.

The effect of programming lead-in has always been in question in Lexington. As proven by Leno's effect in other markets, it can have an impact, but news executives around the city suggest Lexington viewers do a lot of "appointment viewing," or finding their favored station.

Robert Thomas, news director at WKYT, said the biggest obstacle to viewership for his station at 11 p.m. is residents turning off the television and heading to bed.

"Our biggest battle at 11 p.m. is not with WLEX; It's getting people to stay up and watch the news," he said.

And Thomas said the November ratings analysis for all stations and times might be lower than usual because the area lacked major severe weather events during the month.

He agreed, though, with Carter that lead-in programming can have some impact at 11 p.m.

Carter said that if he had WKYT's lead-in from the wildly successful CBS prime-time programming, such as The Mentalist, "I think we would be a dominant No. 1."

"But we don't, and we have to take what we get," he said.

All in all, Leno didn't do terribly for WLEX. The station saw its 10-11 p.m. ratings rise on three of the five days. But it saw a drop during the crucial 10:30-11 p.m. half-hour (4.8 rating points compared to 5.9 a year ago).

"I worry about the future," Carter said. "If it's down a ratings point now, what will it be the next ratings book?"

For those wondering, David Letterman proved more popular than Leno's replacement, Conan O'Brien, at 11:30 p.m. The Late Show with David Letterman averaged a 3.5 rating and 18 share, up 0.3 points and 2 share points from a year ago. Conan, meanwhile, scored a 2.2/11, down from Leno's 3.9/19 a year ago.

Besides Leno

Of more concern to station leaders than Leno was news viewership throughout the day.

"People were turning to other programming sources rather than watching local news," said Chris Aldridge, general manager at ABC affiliate WTVQ (Channel 36).

Ratings fell for at least two stations during all newscast time slots except noon and 12:30 p.m., where most newscasts were up.

As Thomas said, perhaps it was due to the lack of severe weather. He said February, the next time ratings are measured, tends to be the best for morning newscasts because of severe weather and school closures.

An exception to the viewership patterns was a boost for WLEX during the morning hours of 5-6 a.m. and 6-7 a.m.

Rival WKYT saw its only gains come during its powerhouse noon and 12:30 p.m. newscasts.

WTVQ got a dose of good news with a slight bump at noon and a larger one at 11 p.m.

Over at Fox affiliate WDKY (Channel 56), the station saw its 7-8 a.m. newscast continue to grow, despite losing host Jennifer Palumbo to the station's flagship 10 p.m. newscast.

Palumbo worked the morning newscast for the first two weeks during the ratings period and then turned it over to its new hosts, WKYT morning anchors Bill Bryant and Stacy Ellison. (WKYT produces WDKY's newscasts.)

And while the 10 p.m. newscast saw flat ratings compared to a year ago, that's considered a victory in television, where anchor changes usually mean rating drops.

"Jennifer's return has been welcomed with open arms," said WDKY General Manager Michael Brickey.