AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

More News Turns Out To Be Good News

With news volume at stations increasing overall, the most prolific news producing stations across the country, including many Fox O&Os and affiliates, are finding that making that major commitment — some with 60 hours a week or more — is bringing big benefits to both their bottom lines and brands while strengthening their ties to the community. Says WJBK Detroit News Director Dana Hahn: “For our viewers, it doesn’t matter what time you’re heading out to work or whether you’re sleeping late. We are going to be there for you.”

WXIN has scattered 25-plus billboards around Indianapolis, brandishing its Fox 59 logo and promoting its news with the slogan “We’re Probably On Right Now.”

It’s no exaggeration.

One of the five most prolific producers of local TV news in the country, the Tribune-owned Fox affiliate generates 60 hours a week, which seems to be the magic number for stations in WXIN’s class.

Fifty of its news hours air Monday through Friday, starting at 4 a.m. and continuing on an off before wrapping it up for the day at 11 p.m. That’s twice the amount of news Fox 59 aired in 2009, says News Director Lee Rosenthal.

“I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to have had a plan three years ago and, through the toughest time in local TV news and the TV industry, not only to have made it through but to have made it through better off than we were,” Rosenthal says. “It’s a great feeling.”

Although not nearly to the extent of WXIN, many stations are eschewing high-priced syndicated programs to go heavy on homespun newscasts.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

According to the 2012 RTDNA/Hofstra University annual survey, TV stations are airing more news than ever before, breaking the news-volume record for the fourth year in a row.

In 2011, the average amount of weekday news rose by 12 minutes, bringing the total to 5.5 hours per day, the study found. That’s up from 4.36 hours four years ago.

And about 31% of the country’s news-producing stations say they plan on adding even more this year, it says.

Why stations are bulking up on news is no secret, particularly since the movement has been on an upward trajectory since those rocky recessionary years.

“It all comes down to revenue,” says Jerry Gumbert, CEO of AR&D, the media consultancy. “Most stations get 50% of total revenue from local news.”

“Stations will continue to expand as long as they see a financial return — and I suspect the market still has a ways to go,” says Bob Papper, the Hofstra University journalism professor who conducts the annual survey.

Filling dayparts with news, particularly at times other stations don’t, is also a way for broadcasters to stay in the game at a time when nonstop cable channels and the Internet are feeding news junkies 24/7.

The common denominator among the top news producers, whose weekly output hovers around 60 hours, is Fox. They are either owned or affiliated with that network, which offers the least amount of primetime programming and no network newscasts.

Sunbeam’s WSVN Miami (DMA 16) and Fox-owned WJBK Detroit (DMA 11), each of which generates 64 weekly hours of news, are the country’s top producers.

Station leaders say that airing local news when others can’t — for, say, four to five hours in the morning, or from late afternoon straight until 7 p.m. — has given them an edge with viewers, who see them as the closest things to 24/7 news on broadcast TV.

“You almost can’t get away from us,” says Dana Hahn, news director at WJBK, which airs two hours more news before lunch (7.5 hours) than the average station airs all day. Morning news, which starts at 4:30 a.m., runs straight until noon. News returns for another 90 minutes at 5 p.m., and again at 10 for another 90 minutes.

In May, WJBK’s morning and late afternoon newscasts rated No. 1 among adults 25-54, according to numbers provided by the Fox station group. The station’s 10 p.m. newscast had a 5.0 rating/12 share among those viewers, and at 11 p.m., when the station goes head-to-head in competing with the NBC and ABC affiliates, it ranked No. 2.

“For our viewers, it doesn’t matter what time you’re heading out to work or whether you’re sleeping late,” Hahn says. “We are going to be there for you.”

Gumbert says there can be downsides in airing so much news. Stretching resources, for example, could reduce the quality of newscasts and repeating content could turn viewers off, he says.

Insuring accuracy also “is a constant challenge because the wheel is always turning,” concedes Rosenthal, who added a 6 p.m. newscast just last week.

But the news managers at the top news producers say their owners are willing to expand resources, including staff, alongside news hours.

Alice Jacobs, Sunbeam’s VP of news, says, that because WSVN has grown its staff every step of the way, the station now has the largest newsroom in South Florida, a key component of the station today being “absolutely known as a news station.”

“It’s not just a slogan,” says Jacobs, who for competitive reason declines to say how big her newsroom is. “It is who we are and what we do.

“I think there is something to be said for a TV station providing local news,” she says. “I know people say you can go to the Internet and other places. But when there is live breaking news in south Florida they turn to us and they watch.”

In August, more adults 25-54 watched WSVN’s morning news than ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today Show and the CBS Early Show, according to ratings provided by the station.

The big news producers say that, by devoting nearly half their schedule to local news, they are better equipped to cover stories the way they should be — from beginning to end — rather than squeezing them into relatively short newscasts a few times a day.

“Because we’re effectively in news 24/7, it gives us the opportunity to makes sure our stories are accurately researched so that we have really strong hooks into the story,” says Bill Schneider, GM of Fox-owned WAGA Atlanta. “We’re not picking it up and dropping it and picking it up and dropping it. We are literally following that story as it evolves.”

The big news producers also say have more time to devote to enterprise stories and community-based endeavors.

“With the luxury of five-and-a-half hours of news in the morning we can do those things because we’re not pressed for news and sound bites,” says WAGA’s Schneider, whose Fox O&O produces 58 weekly news hours.

Greg Easterly, GM of WJW, the Local TV–owned Fox affiliate in Cleveland (DMA 18), says his station’s large news output is one component of a larger push to more deeply entrench the station in the community.

In addition to producing about 60 hours of news each week, WJW has local sports and entertainment shows in its regular lineup, as well as seasonal high school sports shows and quarterly late-night comedy.

One of Cleveland’s heritage stations, WJW recently started rerunning old local comedy skits, the likes of which spark memories and community connections.

“Those things really resonate,” he says. “It just makes me believe that with doing more local, we can hopefully thrive in a very complicated and crowded marketplace.”

Read other Air Check columns here.


Comments (3)

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Matthew Castonguay says:

September 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm

These Fox stations have a big advantage for the long haul, because they’re producing a lot of original, local content. This is key and going to become critical – but there isn’t room for 5 or 6 such outlets in every market. So down the line, you’re going to see consolidation.

Mike Henry says:

September 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm

“The common denominator among the top news producers, whose weekly output hovers around 60 hours, is Fox.”

The Fox stations cited here are in the minority here as Fox fewer stations producing news compared to their Big Three competitors (only The CW with six (or eight unless KWGN and KPLR no longer count?) and MyNetworkTV with two affiliates have fewer stations with in-house news departments). By my count, Fox has about 50-55 stations producing their own local news programming (my local Fox station, KOKH, being one of them – at this point) and a quarter of them are owned by the network outright, otherwise most of Fox’s stations contract news production out to Big Three affiliates due to SSAs, insufficient funds for a news department or what have you. Fox has also lost around five local news departments in its affiliate body in the last two years (with three more now on the bubble) and has only gainied/is gaining three or four.

Contracting news programming to another station, when you’re a station affiliated with a network that didn’t exist before 1986, has the huge drawback of giving you less hours of news than your competitors, since the station one outsources their news to isn’t gonna want to air newscasts at the same time as theirs. There’s no excuse for this to happen with Fox stations operated by a company different from the one that holds the station’s license, as and simulcasting news in addition to airing newscasts exclusive to the Fox affiliate should be the norm a la what is done in Jacksonville, where Fox affil WAWS simulcasts WTEV’s morning newscast and airs an extension of that program at the same time WTEV airs “CBS This Morning” or moreso with what WJXX and WTLV do in the same market.

The lack of afternoon and early evening newscasts on many Fox stations has more to do though with the fact that Fox doesn’t require newscasts to air in timeslots other than mornings and late evenings as ABC, NBC and CBS do. Then there’s the fact that the network largely affiliated with stations that don’t or didn’t have news programming (though the WSVN ’89 switch and the affiliation switches that occurred between ’94 and ’96, with New World’s stations and a few others were the exception), some of the station owners that run Fox stations structured like that have deep pockets but won’t invest in a new in-house news on the Fox station (like Sinclair) and others aren’t as well off to be able to do so (like the ComCorp stations). Also, WXIN is the only one cited here whose news department was created from scratch during its Fox affiliation, all others like WSVN, WJW and WAGA had news departments long before they ditched their Big Three affiliations to join the network.

kendra campbell says:

September 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Local news has expanded and the demo ratings have steadily eroded. Content is driven by crime, car wrecks, assorted mayhem, and weather hype. The current model is profitable because it is cheap, and stations can jam 10 -12 minutes of commercials in every mind-numbing half hour. How will this look in January when the election and holidays are over?


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