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Afternoon Delight

On May 30, KARE Minneapolis-St. Paul will unveil its new newscast, KARE Onlive. Like many local broadcasters, KARE is clearly using Onlive (a play on “online”) to expand to the Web, with live streaming and viewer interactivity.

But the Gannett-owned station is also looking to stake out territory in what has become an increasingly popular time slot: 4 p.m.

Driven by viewer demand for hyper-localism, as well as by costly license fees for syndicated shows, such stations as KARE; WSVN Miami; WVLT Knoxville, Tenn.; KAKE Wichita, Kan.; and WHDH Boston are getting creative with early-fringe news programming.

KARE President/General Manager John Remes says the 4 p.m. newscast is a way to better connect with viewers, especially those accustomed to getting news on-demand from the Internet and cable. “In the 100-channel universe and with the Web, they've got so many choices,” he says. “Viewers want news when it happens and when they want it. It makes sense to add more local information in different time periods.”

Chris Baker, WVLT executive VP/general manager, sees the 4 p.m. newscast as “the television version of the early edition of the newspaper”—for those who'd rather not wait until later for a roundup of the day's news.

For WSVN, launching a 4 p.m. news last September was simply a matter of necessity. License fees for Judge Judy had doubled, so the numbers no longer worked for the station, says Sunbeam Television Executive VP Robert Leider. Moreover, Judy's often racy content had fallen out of favor with several marketers.

Modeled after sister station WHDH Boston's long-running 4 p.m. news, WSVN's 7 News First at 4 was such a success out of the box that the station added a 4:30 p.m. newscast in January.

“We own the programs, so we're controlling our own destiny now,” says Leider. “We think, fundamentally, this is the future of the TV industry.”

At WVLT, creating a 4 p.m. newscast was simply a better alternative to middling syndicated fare. Before launching the newscast two years ago, the station ran back-to-back episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. “There's a lack of good, solid fringe programming,” says Baker.

Granted, 4 p.m. news doesn't work in every market. In Knoxville, a university town with lots of blue-collar shift workers, many are home by 4. But even if they're still punching the clock, the 4 p.m. newscast can be an effective way not only to draw viewers at that time but to hook them for later newscasts, too.

“Loads of people are committing the white-collar crime of watching TV on their computers [at work], and you can tease them at 4 with the later news,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of online-research firm Borrell Associates. “We think it's genius. It's a brilliant strategy.”

Labor Pains?

Of course, adding newscasts can mean either hiring more staffers or asking more from already maxed-out producers and anchors. WVLT hired an extra producer, while WSVN brought in five or six new bodies to work on the new programs. However, some managers say gentle schedule-tweaking can free up the necessary resources. Says Remes, “We added a few people, but it was more about the shifting of culture and responsibility.”

And striking the right content balance at 4 is critical. With a high number of stay-at-home mothers and retirees tuning in, stations usually opt for a program that's not quite as hard-hitting as traditional newscasts but meatier than typical time-period fare like The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Ellen DeGeneres Show. WSVN sticks with hard-news stories in the beginning of the newscast, then turns to B-block reports aimed at female viewers on such subjects as child care or working mothers. “We're a breaking-news station, so we don't go soft in the first half,” says Leider. “You have to honor your brand.”

With many 4 p.m. newscasts doing significant numbers—WVLT's sometimes beats the first half-hour of Oprah, while WSVN consistently ranks first or second—advertisers are coming around. The best part, the managers say, is that the newscast can appeal to a wider pool of marketers. “We get early-fringe advertisers and also news advertisers,” Leider says. “It's a double hit for us.”

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