Stations started dabbling with inserting newscasts into their diginet subchannels about five years ago and they say they expect the practice to become more pervasive as more stations recognize the revenue and promotional potential. Among the experiments is producing newscasts that air at non-traditional times — 7-9 a.m. or 9 p.m. — when primary channels are airing network programming.
Never mind extra-long NFL games or other disruptions that throw regular TV programming out of whack. WIBW, Gray Television’s CBS affiliate in Topeka, Kan., promises viewers they’ll have local news 6 p.m. Sundays — and that is exactly what the station gives them.
At times, that may require viewers to flip the channel to WIBW’s D2, which, in addition to its My Network TV and Me-TV programming, starts 13 News right on time every Sunday night, even if it’s being bumped from the main signal.
GM Jim Ogle says the maneuver is paying off. “It immediately took the legs out from under the ABC affiliate (Vaughan Media’s KTKA) because they used to get great numbers on Sundays when the rest of us were dealing with sports programs.”
“As soon as we guaranteed you could get it, boom!” he says.
Ogle’s efforts — which also include producing 7-9 a.m. and 9 p.m. weekday newscasts exclusively for its D2 — exemplify how stations are using diginets as yet another outlet for their newsrooms.
Stations started dabbling with news on diginets about five years ago and they say they expect the practice to become more pervasive as more stations recognize the revenue and promotional potential.
“You have to think of local synergy,” says Frank Biancuzzo, SVP of Hearst Television. “This is really about creating a local identity in a local market so these channels resonate.”
Broadcasters are experimenting with doing news on diginets in a variety of ways.
One typical approach is producing newscasts that air at non-traditional times — 7-9 a.m. or 9 p.m. — when primary channels are airing network programming. WIBW, Raycom’s WSFA Montgomery, Ala. (DMA 118), and Media General’s WCMH Columbus, Ohio (DMA 32), are among the stations doing that.
WRC, the NBC O&O in Washington (DMA 8), inserts a nightly 7 p.m. program in Cozi that Assistant News Director Matt Glassman says is not a full-blown newscast. “It’s a single anchor in a different studio that hits the headlines of the day along with some of the packages that have run on some of our newscasts throughout the afternoon,” he says.
Media General’s WSAV, an NBC affiliate in Savannah, Ga. (DMA 92), has taken a more aggressive approach, creating a newscast — and a two-person bureau to produce it — for viewers in neighboring South Carolina.
Started four years ago, My Lowcountry News airs nightly at 7 p.m. on a subchannel otherwise devoted to MNT and Me-TV. It combines original stories shot in Hilton Head Island and Beaufort and with stories from Media General’s three stations in South Carolina.
The newscast has grown to the point where it is “self-sufficient” financially, and has attracted a following among viewers “who know they can get South Carolina news at 7,” says Media General VP of Broadcast Markets John Cottingham. “The Savannah situation was a real station initiative to claim an audience.”
WMC, Raycom’s NBC affiliate in Memphis, Tenn. (DMA 49), hopes it can find an audience with a month-old 7-8 a.m. newscast on its Bounce subchannel.
GM Lee Meredith says the newscast “is a very broadly targeted program,” with an emphasis on traffic and weather. “You can’t get much more universal than that,” he says.
Meredith says he is considering putting more news on Bounce. “We’ll see how it goes. Bounce is a network that is targeted to African Americans and I don’t want to be doing a lot of stuff that runs against that mission.”
But the folks at Bounce hardly seem concerned.
“We love it,” says Bounce TV COO Jonathan Katz, who says that Bounce “encourages” affiliates to preempt network programming with local news.
The way Katz sees it, Bounce affiliates are better equipped than the network to serve their communities, and if that means putting on local news on then so be it.
“The consumer drives everything we do,” Katz says, adding that the universal appeal of news is one way for Bounce to garner viewers from outside its target demo.
Cozi TV SVP Meredith McGinn feels similarly, saying the network supports “anything that the primarily channels can do to increase their connection to the local community.”
One of Cozi’s selling points is giving affiliates the liberty to preempt up to 13 hours of network programming a week and give it some local flavor.
“No one knows the markets and the needs and habits of the marketplace, better than those news directors. I would never be a speed bump,” she says. “As long as the channel doesn’t become an all-news channel we are comfortable with preemptions for that local market.”
Me-TV’s Neal Sabin, however, is not quite as gung-ho.
On one hand, Sabin says “we encourage judicious use of local programming on the Me-TV network feed, and one of the best ways to do that is local news.”
On the other hand, however, with growth, Me-TV has “gotten less liberal” in allowing preemptions because he believes it’s important not to upset viewer expectations.
“One of the reasons Me-TV is successful is because we do the same thing 24/7. We run classic television, so when viewers come to Me-TV they know what they are going to get,” he says.
That said, Sabin says Me-TV encourages affiliates to use Me-TV as a promotional versus a programming platform for news. Sabin encourages affiliates to air promotions that resonate with Me-TV fans, like spots that showcase news anchors reminiscing about their favorite classic TV shows.
In any event, broadcasters say they are committed to injecting more local programming into the diginet schedules, and that news, including breaking stories and weather alerts, is just one kind of local programming.
Some have started putting other kinds of local programming on those outlets. Bounce TV affiliates, for example, have aired local public affairs programs, college football and basketball games played by predominantly black schools as well as political specials.
Trans-America-owned KAIL Fresno-Visalia, Calif. (DMA 55) airs San Francisco Giants games on its Cozi affiliate. KCCI in Des Moines-Ames, Iowa (DMA 72) carries Minnesota Vikings preseason football on its D2, while WTAE Pittsburgh (DMA 23) carried former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s funeral on a D2.
“You have to go beyond local news,” says Hearst’s Biancuzzo. “This is a local television platform and it’s all about what you do with it.”
This is Part I of our Diginets Special Report. Read the other parts here.