Latest Ploy In TV Wars: Join The Competition
To boost image and income, local stations run news on another channel.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
In these difficult times, some local stations have found an unconventional way to help their bottom line and enhance their image.
They're competing against themselves.
While running regular network or syndicated entertainment programs on their own air, the stations are originating news on a competing station. The innovative concept has been most successful where a newscast is presented at 10 p.m. as an alternative to prime time network fare. But Washington's WRC-TV is trying a 7:30 p.m. newscast on a UHF independent, and stations in Denver, Pittsburgh and Chattanooga have experimented with special election-night programming on another channel.
The endeavor is so new that just a few stations have tried it. But it's being watched closely by local stations battling for identity and profitability.
"Stations are looking at all sorts of ways to use the news department more and to open up new revenue streams," says Jim Willi, executive vice president for Audience, Research & Development, a Dallas consultant.
Elden Hale, president and general manager of WNEP-TV, the New York Times-owned station in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market, pioneered the idea of programming a 10 p.m. newscast on a competitor. News at 10 o'clock has been growing in popularity and success at many independents, but there was none in Hale's market. So, last January his ABC-affiliated station began producing a half-hour 10 p.m. newscast on the Fox independent WOLF-TV, which has no news.
By May, the newscast had risen to an eight percent share of the audience – and was profitable.
"We've made a profit from day one, and I didn't expect that for at least six months at best," says Hale, who splits the revenue with WOLF. "I thought there would be an audience because many people don't want to stay up until [our] late news at 11. But what amazed me is that 20 percent of the audience was not watching TV at all at 9:59. I'm also surprised at how many women 18-to-34 we are drawing."
The WOLF newscast also has had a surprisingly positive effect on WNEP's 11 p.m. newscast, which has dominated the market for years but with ever-decreasing ratings. "Our shares have been down to about 38-39 in the last couple of years, but in May we climbed back to a 42 even though my prime time numbers didn't change," Hale says. "That may be because we reinforced our news presence at 10."
Nurturing a news image also was a prime reason for San Francisco's KRON-TV to start a 10 p.m. newscast in March on the UHF independent KOFY-TV, which already had failed with its own 10 o'clock news. What makes KRON's venture on KOFY even more noteworthy is that the newscast is competing against one of the highest-rated 10 p.m. independent newscasts in the country, Cox-owned VHF independent KTVU-TV.
But Amy McCombs, the enterprising president and general manager of NBC-affiliated KRON, has more than a competing newscast on her agenda. She has long advocated a shift of prime time programming on the West Coast from 8 to 11 to the 7-to-10 p.m. period. That could happen soon now that NBC has permitted Sacramento's KCRA-TV to test the concept starting in September.
With virtually the same anchors, reporters and news on the two newscasts, KRON would be in an ideal position to retain its loyal viewers in the wake of a prime time hours change (which could force the two newscasts to move to 9 and 10).
The validity of the theory was tested in the first month of the KRON-KOFY arrangement, when gunmen took 30 hostages in a Sacramento electronics store. KRON dispatched a crew to Sacramento and had a live feed on the air at 9:55 p.m. At 10, the KOFY newscast started, and the hostage feed was simulcast. After about five minutes, KRON returned to its regular program, "LA Law," but advised viewers following the crisis to switch to KOFY; overnight ratings showed that many did.
Despite the apparent success of the competing newscast concept in San Francisco, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and other markets, some observers are wary of its ultimate benefits.
"We wonder if a station competing with itself is diluting its product and confusing the viewer loyalty to that station," says ARD's Jim Willi.
Roy Meyer, executive vice president of McHugh & Hoffman, a McLean, Virginia, consulting firm, tends to agree. "The primary business of a local station in news is to deliver the best newscast it can for itself," he says. "Frankly, it's too early to tell what these competing newscasts will do."
But the industry is certainly tuned in.
"I get a lot of calls from GMs who are thinking about it," says Elden Hale of WNEP. "Some people think we're crazy. But it's like someone who has an AM and FM [radio] station in the same market. That's my newscast on WOLF. I just happened to borrow the other guy's transmitter because I don't have another one of my own." l###