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NBC Using Repeats to Attract Viewers in the Wee Hours

Television: Reruns of 'Tonight' keep network's costs down while targeting increasing number of night owls.

October 10, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you find yourself up at 2:30 in the morning feeding the baby, cramming for a college exam, or just getting home from a late-night movie shoot or waitress job, flip on the TV these days and you might encounter Jay Leno, lampooning events from the week before.

No, you're not hallucinating. Having access to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" at that ungodly hour represents NBC's new approach to the wee-morning hours, repeating daytime and late-night fare from 2 to 5 a.m. under the banner "NBC All Night."

The strategy reflects a convergence of changing lifestyles and business trends, perhaps foremost among the latter being a desire at all the networks to milk extra money out of material for which they've already paid.

"NBC All Night" quietly began its run in late September, replacing the overnight news service "Nightside." The network runs episodes from the previous week's "Tonight Show" and also showcases the soap opera "Sunset Beach," "Saturday Night Live," "Meet the Press" and "Dateline NBC" on selected nights.

Initial results have proven encouraging. More than 1 million people watched "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" from 2:05 to 3:05 a.m. on average during the first two weeks, based on data from Nielsen Media Research. "Saturday Night Live" rebroadcasts have drawn about 1.5 million viewers, and a Sunday "Dateline" wrap-up totaled 700,000.

In virtually every case, audience levels--while relatively small by network standards--reflect marked improvement and higher tune-in than the prime-time audience for some of the more prominent cable channels.

NBC based the "All Night" effort in part on Nielsen figures showing that the number of people watching television between 2 and 5 a.m. has risen by a third since 1989, from 9.9 million to more than 13.2 million last season.

Moreover, a 1997 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that more than 15 million people normally work a shift that doesn't coincide with a regular daytime schedule. More than 7 million adults work evening shifts, and nearly 28% of workers now have flexible hours, up from 15% in 1991.

Beyond that, NBC noted anecdotally that millions of babies are born each year, causing plenty of young adults in its targeted demographic to be up and around in the middle of the night.

"We saw it as an opportunity," said NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer, noting that "Nightside" no longer offered viewers a unique alternative with three 24-hour cable news channels in existence. "The growth is [among] people whose lifestyles have changed. For them, this is when they watch television."

The network pays some incremental costs in terms of residuals to actors, but the expense appears minimal. Commercial time is currently being sold separately, though the network could eventually try to bundle late-night numbers with ratings for earlier runs of the programs.

ABC has called airing reruns at different times (and in some instances on different channels) "repurposing," which, as one TV station executive put it, amounts to a fancy way of saying the network wants to "pay for it once, and use it twice."

Station executives fear that playing network programs on competing channels--from "Dateline NBC" talent on CNBC or MSNBC to ABC's test of an all-soap opera channel--risks diluting their franchise. Still, they realize the trend is difficult to buck as networks look for new revenue sources to offset rising costs and shrinking ratings.

Finding a way to use the network's own air for such secondary telecasts, then, appeals to stations, said Jim Prather, executive vice president of television at Journal Broadcast Group, which owns NBC affiliate WTMJ in Milwaukee.

"I'd rather have these shows on our station, sharing the NBC brand, than see them turn up on some cable outlet," he said.

Ratings for WTMJ have grown by roughly a third with "The Tonight Show" and "Sunset Beach" reruns versus its results a year ago, easily beating ABC's overnight news. In fact, NBC got an inkling the strategy could work when "Sunset Beach" started out in late night on the station--which had no room in its daytime lineup--and still scored respectable ratings.

"We were getting higher ratings than they were in some markets where the show ran in its regular [daytime] slot," Prather said. "What that tells me is this is an alternative time period . . . [and viewers] who were surfing on cable are being brought back to the broadcast side."

Additional evidence of the after-midnight period's potential can be found in Los Angeles, where KABC-TV and KTLA-TV repeat their late newscasts at 12:35 a.m. and midnight, respectively. Both do surprisingly well, with KABC attracting more than 100,000 homes--almost 2% of local households--with its news replay the last few weeks.

KABC General Manager Arnold Kleiner said the repeat makes news available to people who might otherwise turn to CNN while offering them local information, such as weather and sports, which they can't readily get on national all-news channels.

"It's nice money," Kleiner said. "It's better than [running a syndicated show], and also more exposure for our news team."

Referring to those news ratings, Ohlmeyer added, "That proves there's a different audience [available]. These are people who didn't see the local news at 11 o'clock. It's not like anyone is dying to watch a repeat of that night's news."

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