January 13, 2010

The Leno Effect

2008 2009
NBC 9.032 7.249
ABC 8.681 7.935
CBS 9.589 9.733

19.7% – Decline in viewership for 11 p.m. newscasts on NBC stations from November 2008 to November 2009

As many news accounts noted, NBC affiliates throughout the country were a driving force behind the recent decision to cancel Jay Leno’s nightly 10 p.m. show after his low ratings began to erode the lead-in audience for their late newscasts.

Now a PEJ analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research shows just how dramatic that decline was—and how much worse NBC stations fared compared to those affiliated with ABC or CBS.

Viewership for late local news on NBC—at 186 owned-and-operated stations and affiliates—in the November 2009 “sweeps” period fell by a striking 19.7% when compared with the same period in 2008. In all, the newscasts lost a total of 1.8 million viewers, the audience in November 2009 totaling 7.2 million. Sweeps are months when Nielsen Media Research measures local television audiences to help stations determine advertising rates.

Declines in ratings—the percentage of households in a TV market watching a program at a given time—for those NBC newscasts that followed Leno were steeper. They fell to 2.5 in November 2009, from 3.2 in November 2008, a 21.9% drop.

Share, the percentage of people watching TV who tuned to NBC local newscasts was also down 18% in 2009 to a 9 share, slipping from an 11 share in 2008.

Even in the context of years of audience erosion in local TV news, such large declines are extraordinary. (Local news audiences have been thinning each year since 2006 but the rates have generally been in single digits.) These NBC results were also much worse in November than those connected to rival networks.

During the November 2009 sweeps period, ABC late local newscasts saw their viewership, ratings and share all drop 9% compared to 2008. And CBS stations, which have enjoyed a relatively strong prime-time entertainment program lineup from the network in the fall of 2009, saw their news audiences grow slightly. Viewership was up by 144,000 to 9.5 million, though ratings and share were unchanged from the previous year.

Josh Appelbaum of PEJ