Reinventing The News Wheel Is A Tough Job

Taking a new look at three stations that adopted new approaches to their local newscasts over a year ago finds that "out with the old, in with the new" doesn’t always sit well with viewers. KOMU Columbia, Mo.’s Executive News Director Stacey Woelfel says he still believes that social media can still play a positive role in newsgathering, but that viewers don’t want their use to be so overt. “The tool got in the way of content that was perfectly fine."

Over the past couple of years, I have occasionally featured stations experimenting with innovative news formats — among them, KAUT Oklahoma City, Okla.; KOMU Columbia, Mo.; and KIAH Houston.

Having revisited these stations last week, I would like to say that the three experiments have been spectacular successes. Unfortunately, I cannot.

KOMU dropped its social media news for the most part. KAUT is still sticking with its military-focused format, but with diminishing hopes that it will produce the ratings boost it had anticipated. And KIAH has made some significant gains in the ratings with its “anchorless” news, but they have not been enough to lift it out of the Houston’s news ratings cellar.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Freedom 43 TV: In April 2011, Local TV LLC’s KAUT, then an MNT affiliate, rebranded itself as Freedom 43 TV in keeping with its new mission of reaching the market’s extraordinarily large population of people with ties to the military.

The station also revamped its morning and 9 p.m. newscasts in its attempt to carve out its new niche, broadcasting from a “military industrial chic” set.


But the idea never really caught on, says GM Jim Boyer. “I would call it an artistic success, but not necessarily a commercial success. Apparently, the appetite doesn’t exist as much as we thought.”

The concept struggled from the get go, Boyer says. The station’s morning news show, Rise & Shine, has seen a small uptick in ratings, but its 9 p.m. news garners just a 1.0 household rating, “which puts us right where we were before — sixth,” Boyer says.

Boyer, who will be retiring at the end of this year, says he hasn’t given up hope, noting that there seems to be a “small core audience of people who appreciate the emphasis. But, frankly, we thought there would be a greater interest, particularly in this section of the country.

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“We still like the show; we still like the content,” Boyer says. “We just haven’t been able to break through.”

This fall, the station dropped its MNT affiliation and replaced its primetime programming with syndicated sitcoms. Boyer says he hopes the better programming will lead more viewers to the 9 p.m. newscasts, which compete head-to-head with Sinclair’s KOKH, a Fox affiliate.

[email protected]: KOMU, the University of Missouri’s NBC affiliate in the DMA that includes the state capital, embraced social media with gusto when it launched its [email protected] newscast as an Oprah replacement last September.

But the format, which made viewers “co-hosts,” was apparently too interactive for its own good.

After bouncing around the station’s schedule — from 4 p.m. to 11 a.m., and then to noon — the newscast today only “sort of still exists,” says Executive News Director Stacey Woelfel.

The product today is much more akin to a traditional newscast — from its new name, KOMU 8 News at Noon, to its use of social media like Google+ Hangouts as an enhancement rather than a focus of the show.

Woelfel says the show in its original incarnation had its “dedicated fans but there weren’t enough to give it critical mass as a commercial enterprise.”

According to Woelfel, audiences simply may not have been ready for [email protected]’s fairly radical use of social media on-air, which included anchor Sarah Hill commanding the newscast from a laptop with a second large screen behind her on which viewers could be seen via Hangouts. (Hill has left the station and TV news.)

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“Maybe it was too hard for people to swallow at once,” he says.

Woelfel says he still believes that social media can still play a positive role in newsgathering, but that viewers don’t want their use to be so overt. “The tool got in the way of content that was perfectly fine.”

Woelfel says he found it ironic that viewers wrote in saying they weren’t interested in hearing what other people had to say, considering that viewer input has long been a part of TV news.

“It’s called man on the street and it’s been something everyone has seen and watched,” he says. “It’s not great journalism, but it’s been a staple of local news since I’ve been around.”

NewsFix:  More than 18 months after its debut in March 2011, the anchorless format of Tribune’s KIAH Houston has failed to lift it out of fifth place in news. But, says Executive Producer Gary Jaffe, the newscasts at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. have made significant viewership gains.

NewsFix has stayed true to its original concept. Segments on topics like local crime and music history are hosted by “experts” in the subjects, and the bulk of the newscast is narrated in voice-over style by a local radio personality known as GregO. The newscasts also highlight visuals, like graphics and camerawork more often associated with movies and TV dramas than newscasts.

The story lineup is different too. Rather than stack up stories in order of, say, geography or subject, each segment of the newscast between commercials includes a local, national, international and feature story.

According to Nielsen numbers supplied by KIAH, the adults 25-54 rating of the

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5 p.m. newscast grew from a 2.0 in February 2011, just before the format was launched, to a 2.4 last month. And its share of the evening news audience grew from 7% to 10%.

It’s a similar story at 9 p.m. The 25-54 rating at 9 p.m. went from 1.2 to 1.7 and the latenight news share from 5% to 7%.

The 9 p.m. newscast is attracting the younger viewer the station had hoped for, Jaffe says. The median age of NewsFix’s 9 p.m. viewer in the third quarter of this year was 39.3, versus the 51.6 median age of KIAH’s nighttime news viewer in February 2011.

The median age of the station’s 5 p.m. news viewer has risen to 42.5 from 36.5 before the format changed, Jaffe says.

The newscasts lost viewers when KIAH first went to the new format, says Jaffe. “That leveled off and we’ve been building ever since.”

Steve Simon, a KIAH newsman who has been with the station since 2000, says viewers are starting to tune into NewsFix for its unique take on local stories, like last week’s arrest of a local businessman accused of being Russian spy.

“We thought it was something right out of a James Bond movie, so we made it a little more dramatic in a way that is more aligned with our format,” Simon says. The Oct. 3 segment included music and clips from Bond films and references, and likened the story to a Tom Clancy thriller.

“Everyone did the story, and everyone did a fine job on the story, but the four other stations did their way,” he says.  “The point is they were traditional.”

Read other Air Check columns here.

Comments (2)

Leave a Reply

kendra campbell says:

October 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm

What if stations actually invested in real, relevant content?

Elaine Kurtenbach says:

October 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm

So the audience that watches news still uses AOL dialup. Social Media users don’t watch TV for news, because they want it when they want it. No wonder that format did not succeed.

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