AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Tribune Stations Mix It Up In The Morning

Five of the group’s outlets are testing Eye Opener, a news-entertainment hybrid aimed at offering viewers an alternative to the usual morning fare. It’s a mix of pre-produced pieces that the stations intercut with their own live, local material. Tribune hopes it eventually will be able to sell the concept to non-Tribune stations.

On the morning of July 9, about 160,000 heat-wave sufferers around the country still had no power, drenching storms posed new threats to wildfire-damaged Colorado and six Americans were confirmed dead in Afghanistan.

But viewers who tuned in at the top of the first hour to Tribune’s two-hour Eye Opener — the company’s new morning show that airs in Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Miami and Portland, Ore. — got news of another kind via the program’s daily “Opening Shots” segment, which counts down the top five “need to know” stories of the day.

On this particular Monday, a looming Internet virus and Congress’s plan to discuss repealing the Affordable Care Act made the cut. So did a story identifying British women as the world’s most handbag obsessed, a Jordanian news clip showing one politician pulling a handgun on another during an in-studio debate and a comedy bit based on cops baiting a man who owed $32,000 in child support with a bogus role in a Jennifer Aniston film.

The show is hosted by three very casually clad hosts — comedian Oliver Tull; former Oklahoma City TV meteorologist Danielle Vollmar; and Sean Dowling, who has a background in TV news.

After a couple of other pre-produced features, and a dose of “serious” national news reported by longtime TV newswoman Nerissa Knight (that’s when stories like the heat wave come in), it’s up to each station that airs the show to step up to the plate. They get three minutes, four times an hour, for local news inserts.

The show, which is produced at KDAF Dallas (DMA 5) and launched nationally in December, is giving Tribune stations the chance to get into the morning show game.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Even non-news producing stations can join in. Three of the stations that currently air Eye Opener — WPHL Philadelphia, WSFL Miami and KRCW Portland — didn’t produce news before running the show.

“Every one of our TV stations would love to have their own newsroom,” says Steve Charlier, Tribune’s SVP of news. “It’s just not financially viable.”

But Eye Opener gives stations “a base of a unique morning so that allows them to get into local news play at a price they could afford,” he says.

The show runs weekdays from 5 to 7 a.m. on the East Coast and in Portland, and from 6 to 8 a.m. in Texas. Previously, primarily paid and syndicated programming filled those slots.

Charlier describes Eye Opener as a platform where “comedy meets national news,” and is designed so Tribune stations can distinguish themselves by offering a program that stands apart from traditional morning shows.

The same tenet is behind Tribune’s NewsFix, the anchorless newscast that launched on CW-affiliated KIAH Houston last year. Eye Opener occasionally uses NewsFix segments. “If we tried to be like every local newscast it wouldn’t work,” Charlier says.

Tribune chose to launch Eye Opener in the five markets because those cities “need to be growth markets” and are places that have the younger-skewing audience (primarily adults 18-49) the show is designed to reach, Charlier says.

Tribune is considering expanding Eye Opener to a sixth market this fall, and “would love” to eventually syndicate the show to non-Tribune stations, he says.

The local portions of Eye Opener vary depending on the station producing it. KIAH, home of NewsFix, uses the time for a “full, live mini newscast,” Charlier says. In Miami, WSFL broadcasts from the Tribune-owned South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper newsroom.

WPHL Philadelphia GM Vince Giannini says airing Eye Opener has substantially boosted the presence of the MNT-affiliated station on air and in the community, which has waned since the station stopped producing its own news six years ago. WPHL airs a 10 p.m. newscast that is produced by the NBC-owned WCAU.

“It really gives us the feel of a newsroom without really having one,” says Giannini, who hired six multimedia journalists to produce Eye Opener content. “It’s now alive. There is something going on.”

In addition to reporting stories, the journalists are becoming public faces of the station, doing things like hosting events and moderating panels, he says.

In its local segments, WPHL offers top local news, some of which comes from the 10 p.m. newscast, as well as traffic and weather. But, with the help of a live, in-studio host, the local portion primarily showcases pre-produced segments that match the pace of the national portions of Eye Opener, Giannini says.

Entertainment and Philadelphia events are often featured in its segments, which usually run less than 90 seconds, he says. Weekly “Confession Friday” segments feature randomly chosen people fessing up something private.

Michael Schneider, TV Guide Magazine Los Angeles bureau chief and a local media watcher, says he sees the local component of a show like Eye Opener as key to its success.

“I love the idea of unconventional morning shows, especially in markets where there aren’t any real options beyond the major network offerings,” he says.

“But I’d still love to see the stations attempt to do their own local, irreverent show rather than a syndicated offering. Syndication is fine, but I still have to believe what will help keep local TV alive is exactly that — being local, local, local.”

Tribune leaders say the experiment is starting to pay off in monthly ratings gains, although, as Charlier says, “it is still earlier in the experiment.”

According to ratings provided by Tribune, which compared the first week of this July to that of 2011, Eye Opener is garnering more viewers age 25-54 in Dallas, Philadelphia and Houston than the previous programming did. Audiences, however, are not responding as well in Miami and Portland, where the stations have lost viewers in that demo.

Justin Allen, Eye Opener’s executive producer, says the show continually morphs in response to audience feedback.

“Everyday we redesign something,” Allen says. The local segments, for example, used to air earlier in each quarter hour, but were pushed back to give the show a more national feel, he says.

Charlier says Eye Opener, which non-Tribune stations already have shown interest in airing, is a key to expanding his stations’ reach.

“I want to control my own destiny,” he says. “I don’t think the growth of television will come through having paid programming in the morning.”

Read other Air Check columns here.


Comments (10)

Leave a Reply

Bob Smith says:

July 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm

when did writers stop proofing their stories for spelling errors before publishing? (ref: last sentence in bold paragraph at the top)

Tanya Pavluchuk says:

July 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Spell cheke brokke…..

Todd Keel says:

July 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Sounds like the original CBS This Morning show which had a lot of promise but never really worked. Also a bit like “Evening Magazine” which use to run on a variety of stations across the country many years ago which did work..

Brian Bussey says:

July 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm

please dont mention CBS this Morning

Jaclyn Hansen says:

July 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm

It is great to see Tribune Co. getting into the lucrative field of syndicating stupid, news-less news. Welcome to the Race to the Bottom, already in progress. Obviously, this is just what minor stations in major markets need to do to improve their image and viability with viewers. Please! More stupid news… You know, if the FCC had actually made stations perform in the public interest in some way that really WAS in the public interest, stations would be better off than they are now that local news is just a string of 90-second police blotter reports and investigative pieces on Tom Cruise’s divorce. They would be doing something a viewer couldn’t get elsewhere.

Kevin Frey says:

July 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm

In Houston, the show gets hash marks (as does the anchorless NewsFix disaster). Also – a slight inaccuracy in the story. WSFL did have its own morning news program for a couple of years until Tribune scuttled it.

Sam Fisher says:

July 18, 2012 at 11:22 am

The Sun Sentinel and WSFL are in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami.

Steve Charlier had a similar show that was produced by them a few years ago. The entire staff of the show was rounded up in the studio and fired en masse within a year because the show could never register anything but a hash mark. Eye Opener is the same show in a new package and it gets the same ratings which means there are none. It’s odd that the writer never mentions this.

If you want to fail at morning TV, syndicate the show from Tribune or hire Charlier. They are good at producing TV no one wants to watch.

The writer of this story needed to do a little more homework.

David Warner says:

July 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Interesting story. Makes me glad I live in a major market where I have too many choices of where to get my news from. I could see how it would do well with a younger demographic with their short attention spans, especially if they aren’t cable subscribers. I’ll be curious to see if this sinks, floats, or sails.

A lot of nit-picky comments here. Kind of funny that someone named foxgirl would be so consumed with something like facts. ;).

Arnold Kleiner says:

May 8, 2015 at 8:28 am

I’m a great grandmother and I enjoy and look forward to watching Eye Opener each morning. Love the unique style of the broadcast. Challenging when everyone talks at once and at times hilarious. Keep up the good work!


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