With ‘Ellen’ gone, there’s now a big, mysterious hole in NBC owned stations’ schedules

By Michael P. Hill Article may include affiliate links

At NBC-owned stations across the country, there’s a noticeable gap in the fall schedule.

Those stations, which serve some of the biggest markets in the U.S., have carried “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for years, but that show is ending at the end of the 2021-2022 season.

NBC previously announced “The Kelly Clarkson Show” would move into its spot, but NBC’s owned stations group has been noticeably quiet on what, in turn, will replace “Clarkson” at 2 p.m. local time in most markets.

In most markets, “Ellen” currently airs at 3 p.m. local time, ahead of the local 4 p.m. news. Its once-high ratings played a key role in getting viewers to stick around for local news and “Clarkson” will be just as important in that sense.

In many markets even where NBC doesn’t own the local station, the local NBC affiliate uses a similar schedule. Both “Ellen” and “Clarkson” are syndicated, meaning they can air on different stations in different markets.

“Ellen” is produced and distributed by Warner Bros. while “Clarkson” is produced and distributed by NBCUniversal, making it natural that many NBC stations commonly carry the latter.

Despite being produced and syndicated by a different company, Warner Bros. had a group deal with NBC-owned stations, as is common with most syndicated programming and station groups across the country.

A source at NBC confirmed “we are not there yet” in terms of announcing a schedule and that more details will be shared closer to September.

There were reports that NBC was interested in getting newcomer “The Jennifer Hudson Show” since it would mean two shows hosted by musicians could be paired back-to-back.

That won’t happen in NBC owned markets, however, because Fox owned stations ended up getting the syndication rights to “Hudson.”

At this point, contracts have been signed for nearly all major syndicated programming — existing and shows set for fall 2022 debuts — so NBC owned stations seemingly have an hour to fill. Any shows that haven’t been signed yet are likely less desirable and wouldn’t be a good fit for NBC O&Os.

It’s probably not likely that NBCU would be able to develop a whole new show in just a few months to fill the slot, especially one that be of the caliber to take over the old “Kelly” time.

While no decisions have been made, one of the most likely scenarios is, at least in the markets where it owns the local station, to use that extra hour, perhaps with some other schedule adjustments, for a locally produced newscast or lifestyle show (or mix of both).

In Chicago, for example, NBC-owned WMAQ already produces a lifestyle show called “Chicago Today.”

The show originally launched as a weekly broadcast in 2019 but has since expanded to 15 minutes Monday through Thursday and 30 minutes on Fridays, reducing the back portion of the station’s one hourlong midday local newscast at 11 a.m.

Could “Chicago Today” move to 2 p.m. and run a full hour? That would certainly be a big expansion for the show, but the station likely could cull content from its morning and midday newscasts, add segments that are easier to produce than full package-style stories, such as cooking segments and interviews, as well as draw on the NBC owned LX brand and other owned stations for lighthearted content that could still play well in any market.

There could also be time devoted to a mini-newscast or weather updates provided by existing staffers.

Because “Chicago Today” is not produced by the newsroom, it’s also primed for paid segments where businesses can pay to have their products or services showcased on the show in what appears to be a regular segment. This essentially creates a DVR-proof commercial — and opens up new revenue streams for the stations.

In markets that don’t already produce a lifestyle show such as “Chicago Today,” launching one could potentially be achieved by the fall, especially if plans are already quietly in the works. Stations might need to hire talent and behind the scenes staffers or make internal staff moves.

Perhaps the biggest risk of adding lifestyle programming is that while more and more stations have run with this idea, the  broadcasts tend to generate lower ratings, which could pose a challenge for it to serve as a viable lead-in for “Clarkson.” That could at least partially be helped by rearranging the afternoon schedule a bit — which includes “Days of Our Lives” and “Access Daily” on NBC owned stations.

In general, local lifestyle programs are typically relatively inexpensive to produce, which can still make them financially viable even if they don’t generate huge ratings. This could perhaps be especially true for NBC owned stations, which can draw on the resources of NBC and its various digital properties, the LX division and more.

The other possibility would be to have local stations add a newscast. Though a 2 p.m. newscast is almost unheard of and it would remain to be seen whether there’s an audience for that, the station could opt to rearrange the schedule to get a potential new hour of news at a different time.

Again, even with relatively low viewership, an afternoon local newscast could still be relatively profitable, since it could likely recycle much of the same content from the morning and midday shows with all of the commercial time sold by the station. It could also potentially mix in more lifestyle-focused content.

Another route could be to split the time between news and a lifestyle show — either shown back-to-back or somehow split across the afternoon clock.

Another possibility, though probably less likely, is that the network could step in to produce a national fifth hour of “Today, “Dateline” or some other NBC franchise and make it available to its owned stations as well as, perhaps, affiliates owned by others.

Speaking of “Dateline,” NBCU offers true crime themed episodes in syndication and could opt to essentially opt to syndication it to its own stations.

This would be somewhat unique in that it’s rerun airing during a key time of day, but the show’s true crime focus could do well with the afternoon TV demographic.

Another possibility would be that “Dateline” could include edited multi-story editions with truncated versions of old stories perhaps mixed in with “where are they now” update segments at the end.

Many non-network owned stations are reluctant to give time back to the network, since it generally means they get less of the ad revenue generated, so NBC might need to sweeten the pot to entice more stations to pick it up if it goes this route.

Looking down the road, there have also been reports that NBC is looking at going after ABC’s contract to carry “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel” in its owned markets. In many markets, these shows typically air back to back before primetime starts, but the central time zone is notable in that one typically airs in the afternoon with the other one at 6:30 p.m. local time after local news.

However, even if NBC does end up procuring the rights to those shows, it’s still left with an hour to fill for the coming season — and it’s currently a big mystery of what that will be.