NBC Universal rolled out a cannon to shoot down a rebel Boston television station that says it will not carry Jay Leno at 10 p.m. when the comedian's show shifts to prime time in the fall.
The media giant said Friday that it would yank all of its NBC programming from Boston's WHDH-TV if the station carried out its threat to ditch Leno -- who grew up outside Boston -- and instead run a local news broadcast at 10.
NBC took its tough stance to head off a rebellion among local affiliates that are worried that Leno's show might draw lower ratings than the shows it would replace, leaving fewer people to watch their 11 p.m. local newscasts.
"This speaks to how much angst there is among the station affiliates who wonder whether NBC is making the right move, and what that move will do to their late newscasts," said Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group for the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates.
The Boston TV party began boiling Thursday when Ed Ansin, owner of WHDH, told the Boston Globe newspaper that his station would run local news at 10 because Leno would be "detrimental to our 11 o'clock newscast" and "detrimental to our finances."
Ansin did not return calls Friday.
For its part, NBC Universal said its affiliation agreement with WHDH forbids the station from cherry-picking shows. "WHDH's move is a flagrant violation of the terms of their contract with NBC," NBC Network President John Eck said in a statement. "If they persist, we will strip WHDH of its NBC affiliation."
NBC on Friday said it had other options in Boston to distribute its programming. The company also owns a Telemundo Spanish-language station and could run NBC programming on it.
Another NBC executive said the company received calls Friday from other Boston stations expressing interest in assuming the NBC affiliation.
"Make no mistake, the new Leno show will air at 10 p.m. weeknights in the Boston market on NBC," Eck said.
Losing a strong station in a Top 10 market would be dicey for the network, further dragging down its prime-time ratings.
That's the last thing NBC needs because it has been stuck in the ratings cellar for four seasons.
Moving Leno to prime time was a solution crafted by NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker to keep Leno from defecting to ABC, and to prop up the peacock's sagging schedule with lower-cost programming.
NBC and Ansin have a tortured history. Twenty-two years ago, Ansin, who also owns a TV station in Miami, had his NBC affiliation pulled out from under him when the network bought a rival station in the market. The switch dramatically reduced the value of Ansin's station, and with it his family's worth.
At the time, NBC's action was seen within the broadcasting world as jaw-dropping treachery, upending a decades-long partnership and redrawing the balance of power between a network and its affiliates.
Some viewed NBC's switch in Miami, coming shortly after General Electric's takeover of NBC, as a turning point in relations between networks and local broadcasters, which have eyed each other warily since.
These days, Ansin isn't the only station owner unsure about his standing with the networks.
NBC Universal and other media companies have been rushing to figure out how to use the Internet to distribute their shows. NBC Universal is part of a joint venture that owns Hulu, the online video website, which could help dethrone local stations as the TV industry's primary distribution system. In February, Hulu logged 34 million visitors lured by episodes of shows such as "Family Guy" and "The Office."
These technology changes underscore the shift in the relationship between the networks and the affiliates, Ridge said. "No one really knows for sure what the endgame will be," he said, and both sides are looking to preserve their businesses.
Some affiliates worry the networks could bypass them altogether and put their programming directly on cable or satellite.
At the same time that local station owners have felt shunned by the networks, local broadcasters have been wounded by a dramatic drop in revenue.
The recession has battered their mainstay advertisers -- car dealerships, retailers and financial firms. Local newscasts have traditionally generated the lion's share of station profits, which is why Ansin and others are concerned about Leno's move into prime time.
Michael Fiorile, the chairman of the NBC Affiliate Board, said most affiliates were initially "cautiously optimistic" about Leno's prospects in prime time, and now are largely supportive.
"We're now pretty excited and think that Leno at 10 o'clock could be cool," Fiorile said.
The group is participating in a study to determine ways that Leno's show might be retooled to get viewers to stay tuned in until the end of the hour, and then watch their late local news.
The usual ritual for many viewers of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" is to watch the monologue and the first guest, then check out. If that pattern carries over to the 10 p.m. show, it could hurt viewership of affiliates' local newscasts.
"Everybody understands that the show has to have attractive content to take people all the way through the end of the show," said NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel.
He made the case that Leno would be a reliable ratings generator, more so than if NBC experimented with a batch of new dramas at 10.
During the last five years, the networks have run 67 shows during the 10-11 p.m. slot and "72% of those shows didn't return for a second season," he said. "This is a very competitive time period, and we think Jay is going to be very competitive at 10 and provide a terrific lead-in for the station's late news."