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Is Jay Leno killing KARE’s 10 p.m. news ratings?

Not yet — the KARE Bears are faring better than cousins on the coasts. But the trends look worrisome.
By David Brauer

In a word, no.

Despite the Unfunny One’s awful reviews and awful ratings on the coasts, four weeks of Twin Cities data indicates his lousy lead-in is not taking the late news ratings champ down with him.

Locally, among advertiser-coveted 25-to-54-year-olds, Leno’s Monday-Friday numbers are lower than last year’s 9 p.m. fare: from a 4.7 rating/10 share then to 3.9/9 now. (Rating is the percentage of TV-owning households tuned in, share is the percentage with TV turned on.)

That’s a 17 percent ratings drop and a 10 percent share drop — not unexpected, by the way, since Leno was all about saving NBC production dough at the expense of a few ratings points.

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The affiliates stood to pay the price, if their cash-cow late local news viewership dropped. But for KARE, long the market leader, that’s not really happening.

Last year, KARE’s 10 p.m. news racked up a 6.7/16, according to Nielsen data. This year? 6.3/15.

That’s a 6 percent ratings and share drop. Not zero, but not double digits. David Crawford, KARE’s general sales manager, calculates last year’s rating at 6.5, not 6.7, which would make the slippage just 3 percent.

Crawford, being the sales guy, chooses to characterize this as “flat,” and I’m inclined to cut him a break. The four-week period — Sept. 14 through Oct. 9 — had a few unique events.

Two that depressed KARE’s numbers: The Vikings’ KSTP-ESPN ratings blowout of the Packers a week ago Monday, and the Twins 11-inning cable-only playoff loss to the Yankees four days later.

On the plus side, Leno’s first week featured huge opening-show numbers and competition against network reruns.

What should have KARE worried? The trend. Here’s how Leno’s rating has tracked week-to-week:

Sept. 14-18 (opening shows): 6.7
Sept. 21-25: 3.3
Sept 28-Oct. 2: 3.2
Oct. 5-9: 2.3

That final week was the one that included Favre and A-Rod. If Week 4 is an aberration and Leno settles in with a low 3, KARE should be thrilled. According to TVNewsCheck, Leno is averaging around a 2 in New York and Los Angeles.  Conventional wisdom, which seems borne out, says Leno does better in the Midwest than the coasts.

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It will be interesting to see this week’s numbers. But if Week 4’s drop is a trend, KARE may start taking it on The Chin.

Crawford embraces long view. Leno will be live 46 weeks a year, far more than competing shows. Even if his numbers slip somewhat, a 52-week comparison might show no drop at all. Still, I think competitors will welcome erosion now, whatever next summer brings.

Ratings don’t necessarily correlate to journalistic quality, of course. But the winners could get more resources (or more likely, fewer cuts) for their brand of coverage, while the losers’ losses could be huge in the new economic reality. Then again, parent Gannett has whacked KARE pretty good this year regardless of the ratings.

NBC’s prime-time numbers sucked last year, too, so even if Leno stabilizes, KARE has locked-in lousiness. I’m a little new to the ratings racket, but it’s astounding how well KARE’s 10 p.m. news builds on its awful lead-ins — gaining more than 2 ratings points on average, something no competitor comes close to duplicating.

But you can’t defy gravity forever, can you? We may soon find out.