The 16 Fox-owned stations that produce news are trying to change the way they do latenight news and “break out of the box.” Among the innovations are debates, interviews and commentary about controversial local issues. Says AR&D’s Jerry Gumbert: “Fox realizes, perhaps better than some broadcasters, that the same old content and same old format and presentation style are barriers to future growth and relevancy with consumers."
It’s Not Your Father’s Late News At Fox O&Os
Turn on WTXF, the Fox O&O in Philadelphia, right before bedtime, and you’ll find a different kind of late news happening. Gone are the canned comments. Packaged stories and the news roundups don’t dominate as they used to.
Instead, individuals, like lawyers and radio show hosts, are featured in highly produced commentaries, complete with graphics and stock footage. Things can get a bit contentious at times, too. Guests, often of passionate — but differing — opinions, debate topics from workers’ rights to condoms for 11 year olds.
And the newscast is fast-paced with split screens for lengthy (at least in terms of local news) interviews and a steady stream of headlines moving across the bottom of the screen.
The vibe feels a little like daytime TV, a little like cable.
“We want to provoke thoughts; we want to give many sides to each issue,” says News Director Kingsley Smith. “It’s time we break out of the tired, inflexible format.”
WTXF is one of 16 news-producing Fox-owned stations around the country that are trying to change the way they do latenight news in response to a call in January 2010 from corporate to “break out of the box.”
WTXF was the first in the group to start experimenting with latenight news — and has been among the boldest.
KMSP Minneapolis, another early mover, is also supplanting straight news of the day with commentary and interviews with guests with opposing views. The station has taken on controversial issues such as expanding gambling, stereotyping Muslims, taxpayer-funded athletic stadiums and frivolous lawsuits.
Those kind of topics, “big issues in our state,” are also getting more attention from reporters, rather than minor news that’s old by the time the latenight newscast rolls around, says Carol Rueppel, VP and general manager.
“The accident that happened at 8 a.m., or even 8 p.m., isn’t as relative as topics of what people are thinking about, such as their financial futures and politics,” she says.
KMSP has also garnered attention for particularly feisty live interviews. Last November, KMPS anchor Heidi Collins got into it with Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie about the deadlock in the governor’s race. At one point, Collins said, “Secretary Ritchie? Could I ask the questions? I ask, you answer. Yes?”
Rueppel says there’s no plan to inject that kind of conflict into interviews. It’s more a matter of passions flaring at times. “It’s not predictable. We want people to come on who feel strongly and passionately about their topics,” she says. “I do consider it a different mindset. It permeates everything from the story meeting to the topics we choose, to the research we do.”
Calling typical latenight news “scripted, predictable and stale,” Sharri Berg, Fox Television Stations’ SVP of news operations, says Fox TV executives challenged stations “to be more in touch with what news consumers want” when it comes to latenight newscasts.
Berg says Fox leaders knew latenight news had to change if it was going to stay relevant in the face of increased competition and changing consumer habits.
“Other forms of media — cable and talk radio and newspapers — are much more engaging,” she says.
The way Berg sees it, higher ratings are not the immediate goal. It’s more the start of an incremental process of securing Fox stations’ latenight newscasts for the long haul.
But ratings do matter, and, according to a Fox spokeswoman, ratings are up — in total households or one of the key demos — in 10 of the markets since changes have been implemented: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago and Austin, Texas.
The initiative is a continual process. Fox station executives from across the country meet weekly via conference calls, on which they brainstorm and share ideas. But the specific ideas are developed most often at the local level, where staffers from news directors on down can participate, Berg says. “There is no cookie cutter format here.”
The changes take many manifestations.
At WTVT in Tampa, Fla., anchor John Wilson regularly moves out of his “neutral” capacity to offer commentaries in a segment called “My View.” In New York, WWOR regularly mobilizes anchors, reports and guest experts to explore a particularly important topic in depth.
Robin Robinson, who works at WFLD Chicago, now regularly steps away from the anchor desk to report on the crisis in public education.
At WJBK Detroit, the morning and latenight anchors traded jobs for a week “just to switch it up,” Berg says.
And they’ve kissed the teleprompter goodbye at WTTG Washington.
Jerry Gumbert, president and CEO of AR&D, the broadcast strategy firm, says he admires the experimentation. “Fox realizes, perhaps better than some broadcasters, that the same old content and same old format and presentation style is a barrier to figure growth and relevancy with consumers,” he says.
“The marching orders are clearly intended to begin an evolutionary change in the norm and to create a new-found value in their newscasts,” he says.
Neal Justin, the Minneapolis Star Tribune TV and media critic, calls what KMSP is doing “an interesting approach,” but is not overly impressed. Despite KMSP’s higher ratings in key demographics in late news — it grew by 11% in adults 18-49 and by 9% in adults 25-54 — the market is still dominated by the NBC and CBS affiliates, he says.
“It’s pretty different, but I don’t think it’s a huge game changer.”
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.