Hearst-Argyle TV Sees 4Q Dive

by , Feb 26, 2009, 7:01 AM
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money down The top executive at a leading NBC affiliate group indicated Wednesday that he advised the network to return the 10 p.m. hour to stations, rather than undertake the Jay Leno experiment.

"My hope and suggestion had been that Leno come on at 11 o'clock and the affiliates would have gotten 10 o'clock," said David Barrett, CEO of Hearst-Argyle, which has 10 NBC stations.

But, he said, NBC wasn't "ready to do that." Barrett has been an advocate for networks opting to drop an hour of prime-time programming weeknights, giving stations that 10 p.m. slot for news and perhaps other programming.

"I think from our point of view and from theirs that that would be a better strategic course to travel," he said. "So, I can't say what's on their mind in terms of long-term strategy. I think they believe and hope that Leno will work--and the affiliates will work hard to see if that's accomplished."

He went on to express concern that Leno could be a problem at 10 if the show follows the traditional ratings arc of "The Tonight Show," where tune-in falls off as the hour goes by--that could serve as a poor lead-in for late local news.

By expressing hope that Leno would come on at 11, Barrett may have been expressing apprehension about NBC's decision to have Conan O'Brien replace Leno as the host of "Tonight." NBC has announced that a Leno-fronted show will air weeknights at 10.

Barrett made his comments on a conference call to discuss H-A's fourth-quarter performance, which brought a 9% revenue decline to $197 million, and a loss. The auto category continues to be a trouble spot, down 23% for all of 2008.

A further sign of how choppy the waters are: H-A has been a leader in developing off-air opportunities, but its digital revenues were flat in 2008.

H-A, which rejected a $23.50-a-share offer to go private in 2007, has seen its share price battered recently, closing at $1.64 Wednesday. Barrett called it "unimaginably low."

H-A operates 29 stations, with NBC outlets in Baltimore, Orlando and Cincinnati among them.

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