CBS Affiliates No Longer Mourning A.M. Show

CBS affiliates have supported the network’s efforts to rebuild its morning newscast as a hard news alternative, and a new promotional campaign involving both parties means the locals might see some improved numbers from the longtime ratings sinkhole. The partner stations caught a glimpse of the new promo strategy at an affiliates’ meeting in May, and the joint campaign is “ramping up this summer,” says Chris Licht, CBS News VP and executive producer of CBS This Morning.

The messaging plays up the distinction between CBS This Morning’s newsy chops and lighter fare on ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today after the first half-hour. While there’s a long way to go before CBS is doing real battle with its competitors, the affiliates appreciate that This Morning stays consistent to the CBS News brand. “They’re saying, ‘Look—we think there’s a niche here, a large group of viewers who want more news and less gossip,’” says Chris Sehring, KMTV Omaha VP and market manager. “And we think we can fill it.”

With CBS’ primetime a rocksolid performer year in and out, affiliates are unlikely to publicly criticize the network, though for years many have privately grumbled about being an alsoran in network morning news. Before the format’s January 2012 debut, Licht was tasked with building a morning show from scratch. He speaks of not only overhauling the widget being produced, but knocking down and rebuilding the factory itself. “It was, pretend we never had a morning show,” he says.

Licht’s background features an interning stint at Today and working at KNBC Los Angeles and KNTV in the Bay Area. His vision included broadcasts updated for the non-Eastern time zones and significant contributions from local talent when a story lands in their backyard. “Local news has some of the more resourceful, smart people you’ll ever find,” Licht says.

For the week ended July 11, CBS This Morning was watched by an average 2.8 million people, up 6% from the same week the year before. Good Morning America and Today, meanwhile, were at 4.9 million and 4 million, respectively.

A factor in the growth is affiliates believing in the This Morning broadcast—and using their local a.m. news programs to promote it. “For years, stations had real difficulty promoting the CBS morning newscasts because they didn’t believe they were all that good,” says Chris Cornelius, recently departed CBS affiliates board chairman. “The affiliates now believe CBS’ morning news is very good— and potentially very strong.”

The high-energy Licht is adamant that the stations contribute both on-air and on the promotional front. While most of the on-air contributions at the local level come from the owned stations, affiliates do pop up in the broadcast. Mark Lehman, WKMG Orlando reporter, appeared recently to discuss Tropical Storm Arthur. Skip Valet, WKMG VP and general manager, appreciates his brand getting some time on the big stage. “It’s a great indicator that our network trusts the stations,” he says, “and understands how important it is to have great local news organizations.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.