Local TV's low-rated MNT affiliate has calculated that it may be able find its place in the 45th largest TV market by focusing on the large local community with connections to the military. If successful, Freedom 43, as the station is now calling itself, could prove the value of seeking niche audiences other than those based of gender, age or ethnicity, says Hofstra media prof Bob Papper.
KAUT Oklahoma City Seeks Military Viewers
With its 7 a.m. Rise & Shine newscast last Monday, Local TV’s KAUT Oklahoma City (DMA 45) officially became Freedom 43 TV, aimed primarily at the market’s extraordinarily large population with connections to the military.
“We’ll be tinkering with things for several weeks at least, but the over-all concept works and looks good,” says Jim Boyer, president and GM of the MNT affiliate and its companion NBC affiliate KFOR.
The concept stems from the market’s having one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the country, Boyer says.
Its four major bases– Tinker, Vance and Altus Air Force Bases and Fort Sill — are home to nearly 33,000 active personnel, as well as more than 36,000 civilian employees, he says. The Oklahoma Army National Guard contributes another 7,600 soldiers.
What Freedom 43 means in concrete terms is that other than a few top local, national or international news stories, the local news is going to feature stories on the market’s major military bases and the people with ties to them, Boyer says.
Five people are now assigned exclusively to Freedom 43 news, including a morning co-host, evening anchor, two producers and a reporter/videographer, Boyer says. The other morning co-host also anchors a KFOR newscast. The rest of the staff works for both stations.
The station hopes the staff will grow with ratings and revenue, Boyer says.
Mary Ann Eckstein, news director for KAUT and KFOR, says coverage will run the gamut from issue-based stories, like suicides among reservists and deployments of locally based troops, to features such as a weekly check-in with a military wife at home with the kids while her husband is overseas.
Light features will also have a military cast, too, Boyer says. Cooking segments, for example, won’t feature celebrity chefs the way they do in many markets. Rather, bigwigs from the mess halls will appear on-air instead, he says.
Although the two stations will continue to share weathercasters, Freedom 43’s “local” weather reports will be like no other, covering on a rotating basis about 20 locations around the world where Oklahoma City-based troops are stationed, she says.
Even the new set has unmistaken Armed Forces-inspired design. Described by Boyer as “military industrial chic,” the look of the set falls somewhere between a warehouse-style nightclub and an aircraft carrier deck.
In time, Freedom 43 may schedule other programming, including syndicated shows and specials, that conforms to the military theme, he says.
M*A*S*H, already a KAUT staple, for example, is likely to stay on the line-up, Boyer says. TV specials on Armed Forces-related subjects will likely be fit into the mix as well.
Before the move, KAUT filled its two daily newscasts with content from KFOR – a common practice with duopolies.
But despite several rebranding attempts consistently, the station remained sixth in sign-on to sign-off ratings as well as revenue in an eight-station market.
Last summer, a group of station executives agreed that something dramatic was going to have to be done with the station for it to get any traction, Boyer says. After crunching the numbers, he says, the team decided to give the Freedom 43 concept a shot, as getting any reasonable traction among military types would be an improvement.
“We don’t have to be No. 1,” Boyer says. “We just need to get enough viewers to get a return on our investment.”
According to Boyer, the Freedom 43 concept is based in part on the station’s belief that the target audience has shared values — faith, freedom and patriotism.
But the station has no political agenda, Boyer says. “We are not Fox. Rather than push a point of view, we are going to follow a point of view.”
While local news operations have experimented with other niches, such as women, young people or ethnic groups, industry watchers say they have never seen a newscast bound by an institution or job as KAUT’s is.
And, the experts say, the effort, if successful, could pave the way for other broadcasters also looking for a way to distinguish themselves other than on the basis of gender, age or ethnicity.
“I would think a whole lot of people will watch this and see what happens,” says Bob Papper, the Hofstra University media studies professor. “If it looks like it’s working, what we will see, as we always see, is massive copying.”
Siena College journalism professor Dow Smith, a former TV newsman who was in the business for 40 years, was wary of the idea.
Although company towns typically maximize coverage of a major employer – in the way Detroit would cover the car companies – Smith says he finds Freedom 43’s niche “strangely bizarre.”
Smith takes particular exception to the station adding the values factor to its newscasts. “That’s assuming that the average views of people in the military are kind of monolithic and that they all have the same values system,” he says.
Having worked in the Navy’s public affairs division in Vietnam, and headed a Syracuse University camera and video journalism course for military members, Smith also says covering the military community will be a challenge, as controls over information and suspicions of mainstream media abound.
“If you’re trying to be honest and do good journalism, I think that could be very tough,” he says.
Eckstein, however, says that when it comes to Oklahoma, the concepts fueling Freedom 43 are really not that far-fetched.
Rather, beliefs in ideas like freedom, patriotism and faith are part of the mindset of many Oklahomans, regardless of how they vote or what church they belong to, she says.
“Driving along Route 66 for us screams freedom.”
P.S. In my last column, I mistakenly reported that WLEX Lexington, Ky., had the third most popular local TV Facebook page in the country with some 60,000 fans, when there are actually other stations like KUTV Salt Lake City and WJW Cleveland that have well over 150,000 “fans” each.
Bruce Carter, WLEX’s news director, told me that WLEX was the third most popular, and he stands by that. But in his ranking, he includes only like-minded TV stations that use their sites primarily for news. He excludes stations that use their sites heavily for for contests and promotion.
Carter says he compiled the list of Facebook pages to which he compares WLEX’s from recommendations and information from industry analysts.
In addition to those more popular, news-oriented pages cited in the story – the ones operated by WXIN Indianapolis and KVVU Las Vegas – Carter says he also keeps close watch on the Facebook pages run by WOOD Grand Rapids, Mich.; WAVY Norfolk, Va.; and WKYT, also in Lexington.
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.