Five of the group’s outlets are testing Eye Opener, a news-entertainment hybrid aimed at offering viewers an alternative to the usual morning fare. It’s a mix of pre-produced pieces that the stations intercut with their own live, local material. Tribune hopes it eventually will be able to sell the concept to non-Tribune stations.
On the morning of July 9, about 160,000 heat-wave sufferers around the country still had no power, drenching storms posed new threats to wildfire-damaged Colorado and six Americans were confirmed dead in Afghanistan.
But viewers who tuned in at the top of the first hour to Tribune’s two-hour Eye Opener — the company’s new morning show that airs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Portland, Ore. — got news of another kind via the program’s daily “Opening Shots” segment, which counts down the top five “need to know” stories of the day.
On this particular Monday, a looming Internet virus and Congress’s plan to discuss repealing the Affordable Care Act made the cut. So did a story identifying British women as the world’s most handbag obsessed, a Jordanian news clip showing one politician pulling a handgun on another during an in-studio debate and a comedy bit based on cops baiting a man who owed $32,000 in child support with a bogus role in a Jennifer Aniston film.
The show is hosted by three very casually clad hosts — comedian Oliver Tull; former Oklahoma City TV meteorologist Danielle Vollmar; and Sean Dowling, who has a background in TV news.
After a couple of other pre-produced features, and a dose of “serious” national news reported by longtime TV newswoman Nerissa Knight (that’s when stories like the heat wave come in), it’s up to each station that airs the show to step up to the plate. They get three minutes, four times an hour, for local news inserts.
The show, which is produced at KDAF Dallas (DMA 5) and launched nationally in December, is giving Tribune stations the chance to get into the morning show game.
Even non-news producing stations can join in. Three of the stations that currently air Eye Opener — WPHL Philadelphia, WSFL Miami and KRCW Portland — didn’t produce news before running the show.
“Every one of our TV stations would love to have their own newsroom,” says Steve Charlier, Tribune’s SVP of news. “It’s just not financially viable.”
But Eye Opener gives stations “a base of a unique morning so that allows them to get into local news play at a price they could afford,” he says.
The show runs weekdays from 5 to 7 a.m. on the East Coast and in Portland, and from 6 to 8 a.m. in Texas. Previously, primarily paid and syndicated programming filled those slots.
Charlier describes Eye Opener as a platform where “comedy meets national news,” and is designed so Tribune stations can distinguish themselves by offering a program that stands apart from traditional morning shows.
The same tenet is behind Tribune’s NewsFix, the anchorless newscast that launched on CW-affiliated KIAH Houston last year. Eye Opener occasionally uses NewsFix segments. “If we tried to be like every local newscast it wouldn’t work,” Charlier says.
Tribune chose to launch Eye Opener in the five markets because those cities “need to be growth markets” and are places that have the younger-skewing audience (primarily adults 18-49) the show is designed to reach, Charlier says.
Tribune is considering expanding Eye Opener to a sixth market this fall, and “would love” to eventually syndicate the show to non-Tribune stations, he says.
The local portions of Eye Opener vary depending on the station producing it. KIAH, home of NewsFix, uses the time for a “full, live mini newscast,” Charlier says. In Miami, WSFL broadcasts from the Tribune-owned South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper newsroom.
WPHL Philadelphia GM Vince Giannini says airing Eye Opener has substantially boosted the presence of the MNT-affiliated station on air and in the community, which has waned since the station stopped producing its own news six years ago. WPHL airs a 10 p.m. newscast that is produced by the NBC-owned WCAU.
“It really gives us the feel of a newsroom without really having one,” says Giannini, who hired six multimedia journalists to produce Eye Opener content. “It’s now alive. There is something going on.”
In addition to reporting stories, the journalists are becoming public faces of the station, doing things like hosting events and moderating panels, he says.
In its local segments, WPHL offers top local news, some of which comes from the 10 p.m. newscast, as well as traffic and weather. But, with the help of a live, in-studio host, the local portion primarily showcases pre-produced segments that match the pace of the national portions of Eye Opener, Giannini says.
Entertainment and Philadelphia events are often featured in its segments, which usually run less than 90 seconds, he says. Weekly “Confession Friday” segments feature randomly chosen people fessing up something private.
Michael Schneider, TV Guide Magazine Los Angeles bureau chief and a local media watcher, says he sees the local component of a show like Eye Opener as key to its success.
“I love the idea of unconventional morning shows, especially in markets where there aren’t any real options beyond the major network offerings,” he says.
“But I’d still love to see the stations attempt to do their own local, irreverent show rather than a syndicated offering. Syndication is fine, but I still have to believe what will help keep local TV alive is exactly that — being local, local, local.”
Tribune leaders say the experiment is starting to pay off in monthly ratings gains, although, as Charlier says, “it is still earlier in the experiment.”
According to ratings provided by Tribune, which compared the first week of this July to that of 2011, Eye Opener is garnering more viewers age 25-54 in Dallas, Philadelphia and Houston than the previous programming did. Audiences, however, are not responding as well in Miami and Portland, where the stations have lost viewers in that demo.
Justin Allen, Eye Opener’s executive producer, says the show continually morphs in response to audience feedback.
“Everyday we redesign something,” Allen says. The local segments, for example, used to air earlier in each quarter hour, but were pushed back to give the show a more national feel, he says.
Charlier says Eye Opener, which non-Tribune stations already have shown interest in airing, is a key to expanding his stations’ reach.
“I want to control my own destiny,” he says. “I don’t think the growth of television will come through having paid programming in the morning.”
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