Jessell | ‘NewsNation’ Needs New Time, Bigger Budget
Nexstar’s NewsNation had what should have been a big night last Tuesday.
The three-hour news block on WGN America aired an exclusive interview with President Trump in two parts that anchor Joe Donlon recorded earlier in the day at the White House.
But Donlon didn’t challenge the president on anything. So, he failed to extract any comments that might have attracted the kind of attention the newscast badly needs. It hasn’t exactly been making Nielsen history since its debut on Sept. 1. Its ratings are a fraction of those of its cable news rivals.
That’s too bad. NewsNation is technically cable, seen in some 75 million homes. But deep down it’s broadcasting. It derives from WGN Chicago and the collective newsgathering power of Nexstar’s news producing stations scattered across 115 markets and, lest the promoters let us forget, their more than 5,000 news pros.
It’s going to take more than an occasional Big Get to get NewsNation where it wants to go.
I’d suggest two things. First is the scheduling. WGN America has to move up the start time at least an hour and a half. Right now, NewsNation is actually three sequential and evolving one-hour newscasts starting at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 Central. That’s primetime — the best place to be in television, right?
No. Not in news. If you’re in the news business and you’re in prime, you’re in the wrong place. You’re late. Some 700 TV stations, the Big 3 broadcast networks (in most markets), PBS and the cable news have already spoken. News at 8 p.m. is electronic fish wrapper. Nexstar’s Perry Sook might as well buy himself a morning newspaper.
At 8, even NewsNation’s principal cable rivals switch out of news and into commentary. CNN goes to Anderson Cooper; Fox News, to Tucker Carlson.
Opinion-adverse NewsNation might think it is counterprogramming its rivals in primetime. What it is really doing is running counter to 70 years of deeply instilled viewing habits. By 8, most Americans are looking for entertainment, a break from the sturm und drang of the day.
If you’re thinking that 8 might be late for the Eastern half of the country, but perfect for the Western half, you should know that three-quarters of the population live in the Eastern half. Ad-supported linear TV demands that you cater to the biggest audience possible.
I recognize there are a few problems with moving up the start time to, say, 6:30 p.m. ET. It puts tremendous additional pressure on the production. They will have to do all that they do now, but with one-and-a-half fewers hours to do it in. That’s a big ask.
Pushing up the start time also means that Nexstar will have to compete against itself in many markets — against the broadcast networks’ evening newscasts. But the great lesson of media in the internet age is that you can’t worry about cannibalizing your own business. If you don’t give viewers what they want when they want it, somebody else will.
WGN America would also lose any profit it is now making from airing sitcoms in prime access, but I can’t believe it is enough to make a difference. Right now, the channel is going with four installments of Last Man Standing from 6 to 8.
My other recommendation is that NewsNation double down, pour still more money into this enterprise by commissioning enterprise stories at least once or twice a week worthy of a press release and holding the promise of breaking news that gets picked up elsewhere — going viral.
More big interviews would help, too. If Joe Biden doesn’t accept NewsNation’s invitation for an interview, he is as addled as his right-wing critics say he is. (Here’s a good question: To be fair, would Donlon’s questions for Biden have to as innocuous as those he posed to Trump?)
As I’ve written here before, NewsNation will not make it on the promise of objectivity alone. In fact, the emphasis on objectivity can cause you to avoid tough reporting that might offend one side of the political divide.
I’ve been sampling NewsNation from Day One. In fact, I have 50-some one-hour newscasts stacked up on my almost-full DVR right now.
The program has a lot going for it. Generally, it’s beautifully produced, polished and seamless. I’ve not seen anything like the giant video wall opposite the three-person anchor desk. It comprises a series of panels that can rotate separately on their axes or slide together to form a single wall. The producers use it well, for weather and especially for running down the top stories at the start of the newscasts.
The three lead anchors — Donlon, Marni Hughes and Rob Nelson — bring the gravitas when its needed and are amiable without being cloying. That said, I question the need for three anchors. It suggests local, rather than national, TV news and slows the pace somewhat. Two of those salaries could be used elsewhere to greater effect.
I don’t know why NewsNation doesn’t lean more on the family of Nexstar stations for interesting features. Every day should be a showcase of the best of Nexstar from around the country – even if the package is only five minutes. Such a feature would distinguish the program from every other.
I hate national weather reports like you get on the network morning news shows. NewsNation does regular weather reports, too, but for the most part it focuses on weather that is tied to news — wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other severe storms.
NewsNation showed that it can move quickly and handle the big story last Friday when news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death broke just a half hour before it went on air. It devoted the entire first hour (all I watched) to the story and did a more than creditable job. It told her story, rounded up reaction and dissected the political ramifications as well as any in the first hour.
My only question is why it couldn’t get its national political correspondent Dean Reynolds in front of a camera. His first audio report ended abruptly with a dropped call.
NewsNation has always been a long shot, but it can improve its odds by going head-to-head with the broadcast networks in the evening and showing that it’s capable of breaking through the news clutter with you-heard-it-here-first reports that are journalistically sound, powerfully produced and important.