Station Group Chiefs Eye Programming Opportunities At 10 P.M.
With 10 p.m. potentially being returned to network affiliates, station groups are looking at producing content beyond news.
While no decision has been made yet about 10 p.m. — an idea that NBCUniversal refloated in late August — it’s something leaders of large station groups would like to see happen, they said during TVNewsCheck’s TV2025 State of the Industry panel in New York Wednesday.
“We look forward to having that opportunity in our markets and it’s something we could take advantage of,” said Catherine Badalamente, president-CEO, Graham Media. “We are also looking at different streaming opportunities. We’re experimenting with our newscasts right now. We at Graham think we need to reinvent what we do with our news hours. We look at streaming and what we can do on all of our streaming channels as a perfect sandbox [for experimentation].”
“We control all ad units in locally produced segments. Net net, we would view it as a positive,” said Chris Ripley, president-CEO, Sinclair Broadcast Group.
For now, for Big 3 affiliates, the 10 p.m. hour remains part of primetime, but that could change.
“The decision has not been made. We’re discussing a lot of things, obviously it’s our obligation to look forward and chart the course for the future,” said Valari Staab, chairman, NBCUniversal Local. “If we do it, we would need to put together a really solid schedule from 8 to 10 p.m. — 10 p.m. is the most streamed hour out there.”
And George Cheeks, CBS president-CEO, said in a statement following the panel: “We are committed to 10 p.m .and continuing our ratings success in that time period.”
In the meantime, station groups are looking at other ways to program their platforms — from linear to FAST channels, websites and apps — in ways that go beyond standard newscasts, and tap directly into the local markets they serve.
To that end, Sinclair Broadcast Group on Monday announced a creative partnership with CSI creator Anthony Zuiker in which Zuiker is looking at producing new content and innovating old formats for the station group.
“We’re unleashing him and his creative thoughts on our entire platform,” Ripley said. “The immediate obvious wins are things like docuseries. We have 75 news markets and we’ve produced a litany of stories over the years that we can go way deeper on. This isn’t content that necessarily goes on our air — it would end up being sold to other media companies.”
Ripley agreed with other station chiefs that appetite for local news is probably more than sated.
“There’s a balance — you can’t just put local news ad infinitum on a station,” he said. “If you take a look at the trend over the last decade, most stations are probably doing 50% more news than they were a decade ago. There’s a balance to how much you can put out there and we’re asking Anthony to look at talk, game — areas we have historically have done well in. New [syndicated] product is scarce, so we’re excited about some of these ideas.”
Zuiker also is going to dive into Sinclair’s news-producing stations and “reimagine how we present the news,” Ripley said. “One easy example is having more focus on the B roll — how it gets assembled, produced, cataloged. We’re also looking at creative elements around the news.”
While the partnership with Zuiker was just announced, Sinclair is down the road with some of these ideas: “We already have sizzle reels for the docuseries and we’re starting pilots for a game show and a talk show pretty soon.”
Staab said that NBC is primarily using its NBC LX news platform to experiment with different ways to present local news.
“We’ve already made several changes on our main stations based on things that we’ve seen and liked on LX News. It really is a different approach that doesn’t look like any other newscast. We have a younger generation producing it, creating it and telling stories in a variety of ways,” she said.
Those experiments have led to things like Drag Queen News and ASMR News.
“These are things that upon hearing about them, you say: ‘Oh, I don’t know if that will work,’ but you hold your breath and let them do it,” Staab said. “It has opened the eyes of our traditional news directors and news managers and helped them imagine news experimentation on the main channel. We’ve been given this opportunity to wade into change.”
That said, change comes less easily to stations’ main newscasts where producers, viewers and advertisers are all a little slower to adapt. In addition, resources available for change and experimentation remain limited.
“It’s tougher in local news. We have to manage our resources carefully,” Staab said. “We are gaining traction in some areas, and looking at things we can do with NBC News to help bolster it some.”
At Graham, innovation is required.
“Most of our stations know there is a mandate right now to be looking at figuring out a new path forward,” Badalamente said. “In 2023, that is something we will see a lot more of from our group. Adding another hour of news is not the solution. If we’re listening to the audience, they are saying ‘enough.’ If you are just repeating the same thing every half hour, that is not enough either. We have a massive opportunity to fill those time periods. If we do it right, that is the heart of our future.”
Hearst offers its Very Local product across many of its markets, but it also remains bullish on traditional syndication, like this year’s launch of Warner Bros.’ The Jennifer Hudson Show, said Hearst Television President Jordan Wertlieb.
“We have to consider what’s best for the time period and what resonates with the audience. We don’t start with the premise that it has to be news or local,” Wertlieb said. “Our Very Local programs are focused on lifestyle — culinary, craft, travel. We tell amazing stories outside the news that port well to local stations.”
In fact, over Labor Day weekend Hearst ran some of those Very Local programs in time slots that were vacant for a week after the end of Warner Bros.’ The Ellen DeGeneres Show and before the launch of Jennifer Hudson. Wertlieb said these shows improved time-period performance during that week.
“News is the easiest thing to do but once you are there it’s hard to unwind, so be cautious before that becomes your choice,” Wertlieb said.
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