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Did Comcast deal for NBC give affiliates clout in fight over Jay Leno?

January 8, 2010 | 12:12 pm

Until recently, NBC didn't seem too concerned, publicly at least, about how Jay Leno's prime-time performance was affecting its affiliates. The show, said network executives, was doing what they expected. Affiliates, meanwhile, kept quiet -- until they saw the November ratings and then they got a lot more vocal about how Leno's ratings were hurting their 11 p.m. local news shows.

LENO So what changed in the last few weeks to make NBC suddenly eager to move Leno out of prime time and back to late night and risk losing Conan O'Brien in the process? Sure, some affiliates were talking about dropping Leno, but perhaps General Electric Co.'s deal to sell control of NBC Universal to cable giant Comcast Corp. was a factor.

When NBC first unveiled its Leno plans in late 2008, affiliates were less than enraptured by the idea. One station, WHDH-TV in Boston, even threatened to not carry Leno at all. NBC came down hard on it, and others quickly fell in line.

But with NBC Universal and Comcast needing to push their deal through Washington lawmakers and regulators, the last thing NBC can be seen doing is to be bullying local TV stations, which still carry clout on Capitol Hill. NBC affiliates can argue that the network's performance in the 10 p.m. time period is so tarring their local 11 p.m. newscasts that they can't "serve the public interest" with news and information as they are required to do by law.

Of course, with broadcasters' antipathy toward government regulation of the "free" airwaves firmly established, we're a little amused at any sudden invocation of the 1934 Communications Act (as amended) in a defensive tactic. But with advertising-rich local news -- even the crime-and-celebrity format that now predominates -- a profit center for TV stations, all is fair in love, war and lobbying.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Jay Leno. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press