Fox’s unconventional local newscast that airs on WWOR New York and WTXF Philadelphia has not taken New York by storm at 10 p.m., with ratings down by double digits since its debut last summer. In Philly, it airs at 12:30 a.m. and its 18-49 ratings are up 33% from the time slot’s year-ago numbers. Fox is constantly tweaking its TMZ-like elements and creator Dennis Bianchi says the show has matured, offering a smoother pace, more informative discussions and better stories. TMZ creator Harvey Levin says “they will catch fire.”
A year after its buzz-worthy launch, Chasing New Jersey, WWOR New York’s TMZ-style take on local news, still doesn’t have much of a following in the country’s largest market. (The show also airs on Fox’s WTXF Philadelphia, which covers a large swatch of South Jersey.)
WWOR has taken a big hit since launching the 10 o’clock newscast on July 8, 2013. Only 11,000 viewers tuned in during the May sweeps, down 62% from the conventional newscast that aired in the slot in May 2013, according to Nielsen.
Yet, Fox is standing by the show, one of the few local news shows with funky formats being produced anywhere in the country. When it debuted, The Village Voice may have summed it up best when it called it “both awesome and terrible.”
Fox execs opted not to discuss the New York ratings, saying they speak for themselves. But Chasing New Jersey‘s creator Dennis Bianchi, GM of WTXF Philadelphia, did say the show is “absolutely meeting the expectations of ratings” in Philadelphia, where its 12:30 a.m. broadcast is catching on with young adults. As of June 2014, the number of 18-49 year-old viewers watching WTXF at that time was up 33% from the year before when the station aired King of the Hill in the time slot, according to ratings provided by Fox.
Bianchi says producers will “constantly keep tweaking” the show to improve the format and draw more viewers. He says he believes the show has matured, offering a smoother pace, more informative discussions and better stories. “We’ve learned along the way how to do it. It is all so much more relaxed. It’s not like we said slow it down. What we did do is we learned how to put it together better.”
The “chasers,” the reporters who were largely newcomers to TV, now have a deeper understanding of the topics they cover, as well as what’s expected of them, he says.
“They are smarter when they come into the room. They have done their work.”
Some of the changes are readily apparent. The show now features in-studio guests, occasional two-camera shoots in the field and frequent use of Skype.
“Ringleader” Bill Spadea, the New Jersey businessman and former congressional candidate who presides over newsroom discussions with the chasers, is a bit mellower too. Dressing more casually and engaging more in conversation seems to close the chasm between him and the rest of the crew.
And there are now off-kilter segments like “Search Engine,” which involves reviewing stuff other outlets put online. A chaser recently advised Tribune’s WPIX New York to “rethink some of the stories they are doing everyday.”
But much remains the same.
The chasers, the same crew that started a year ago, still report from the field using consumer-grade but hip tools like GoPros and iPhones.
Stories run the gamut. One recent episode featured a package about a man being beaten by security guards at Harrah’s Atlantic City, complete with video of the incident and an interview with the victim. Spadea interviewed the man’s attorney via Skype from the newsroom, with the rest of the gang looking on.
That same episode featured a story shot at the Jersey Shore about the healthy shark population not too far off the coast (accompanied by footage of bikini-clad woman lying backside up on a surfboard shown three times), as well as a chat about the morality, or lack there of, of a sex scandal in the town of Lawrence.
Two short stories — one about a controversial building ordinance in one town, and another about a $300 cash register robbery — were reminiscent of the stuff you find in local newspapers.
TMZ creator Harvey Levin, who was consulted on Chasing New Jersey’s development, and is also a former local TV reporter, is unfazed by the show’s lackluster performance to date. He says Chasing New Jersey is in no worse shape than other fledgling news outlets were before making it big.
“They plug away and they do what they do, and there’s going to be a big story that comes along and it will be up to them to own it,” he says. “They will catch fire.”
Levin says he’s equally confident in the show as an alternative to traditional local news he says is becoming increasingly “gimmicky and irrelevant.”
“I don’t think it’s changed much in 40 years,” Levin says. “It’s stale and it’s old and it’s losing audiences. This is a template for a fresh voice and new way of doing it.”
He also says the show deserves credit for openly doing things, like airing points of view, that traditional news also does albeit in covert ways.
“Why not be honest about it and do it upfront?” he says.
Bianchi says he knows of no plans to launch the format in other markets, despite reports last year that Fox applied for several “Chasing” trademarks, including “Chasing Seattle,” “Chasing Texas,” “Chasing Florida,” “Chasing Charlotte” and “Chasing America.”
Which by no means indicates a lack of faith in the format, Bianchi says. “We are very proud of it,” he says. “I think it’s very informative and entertaining, and fun to watch as well.
“And you walk away with stuff you absolutely wouldn’t get anywhere else.”