NBC affiliate opts to launch newscast instead

The first great NBC-affiliate battle over the new primetime Jay Leno show is poised to take place in Boston — the host’s hometown.

WHDH-TV, Boston’s Peacock affiliate, announced via its website Thursday that it plans to launch an hour-long 10 p.m. newscast in the fall.

That would pre-empt Leno’s new, still-untitled 10 p.m. series. NBC swiftly responded, warning WHDH that such a move would make them in breach of their pact with the net — and that the Peacock wouldn’t hesitate to yank the station’s affiliation.

“WHDH’s move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC,” John Eck, NBC TV Network president, said in a statement. “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.”

Insiders said NBC is already looking at contingencies in Boston should WHDH go ahead with its plans — including turning its Telemundo station in the market, WNEU (Channel 60), into an NBC outlet.

Sunbeam chief Ed Ansin, who owns WHDH, told the Boston Globe that he decided to replace Leno with news because “it fundamentally is a better financial plan for us.”

“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 (newscast). It will be very adverse to our finances.”

Ansin told the paper that WHDH had asked for permission to push Leno to 11 p.m., but the network said no. Instead, he has no plans to run Leno at all, and will continue to air an 11 p.m. newscast leading into “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” at 11:35.

Ansin also claimed that WHDH held a clause in its affiliation contract that would allow the station to dump the 10 p.m. Leno show — an assertion that NBC also vehemently denied.

“That is absolutely wrong,” said NBC general counsel Rick Cotton. “It is clear that WHDH is contractually required to air NBC programming as scheduled by the network.” 

The radical move by WHDH comes as several affils nervously wait to see how NBC’s primetime Leno series evolves and ultimately impacts their business.

The Peacock affils have been conducting a study to see how viewers actually watch “The Tonight Show” — and how there might be ways to produce and schedule Leno’s new show in order to help out affiliates. NBC has also put a task force in place to work with the stations on the launch.

“We’ve been engaged in an open dialogue with NBC about the format of the show, and we’re looking forward to working with Jay and the entire team,” said NBC affiliate board chairman Michael Fiorile, who’s also vice chairman of the Dispatch Group.

This isn’t the first time NBC has faced the possibility of having to replace a major affiliate in a top market. After failing to come to terms in 2001 with its long-time San Francisco outlet KRON, NBC wound up affiliating with (and later purchasing) San Jose-based KNTV. KRON, meanwhile, saw its ratings and revenue plummet after losing the NBC affiliation.

Like KNTV, which only covered part of San Francisco, WNEU only reaches a portion of the Boston market. But the Peacock has other options in Boston as well, including WSBK, a one-time superstation that is now an independent owned and operated by CBS.

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