‘Destiny’ Calls, Stations Respond

Viewers of WGHP Greensboro ’s 6:30 p.m. offerings these days get a big dose of glitz, but the time slot will feel a little less glamorous—and much more local—at this point next week. The Fox affiliate is shifting Access Hollywood to make room for a 6:30 newscast, one of a growing number of stations to plug local news into the non-traditional slot. For the station, part of the Local TV bunch recently acquired by Tribune, it’s a chance to counter-program against the national newscasts, and a way to provide viewers who have longer workdays with their news of the day.

“The 6:30 slot is an area of great interest to us, and we feel it’s of great interest to our viewers,” says Jim Himes, president and general manager at WGHP. “It’s a continuation of our 6 p.m. news that gives viewers who get home later the opportunity to see a live broadcast.”

Wholly Committed

While 6:30 p.m. newscasts are hardly the trend of the 4 p.m. programs that sprung up around Oprah Winfrey’s departure from broadcast television in 2011, a number of broadcasters are seizing the opportunity to go local when the competition is in network or syndicated programming. WNAC Providence, which is managed by LIN’s WPRI, premiered its 6:30 p.m. news Jan. 27. Last fall, WJTC Mobile and KNPL, a new station in North Platte, Neb., also debuted 6:30 shows. Longer-running 6:30 programs come from WXIX Cincinnati, WJW Cleveland and KTVI St. Louis.

Patrick Wholey, WPRI-WNAC VP and general manager, calls 6:30 p.m. a “convenience play” for viewers in DMA No. 53. “There are definitely news viewers at 6:30, but no local option,” he says. “This is an opportunity to grab viewership on a local basis.”

A large percentage of stations airing 6:30 newscasts are Fox affiliates, which go local when the market’s ABC, CBS and NBC stations are in their network shows across much of the country. Others feature underwhelming syndicated offerings in early evening, while just about all of the stations are keen to control their own destiny—a popular phrase in local television that speaks to owning what’s on one’s air, including all ad inventory.

“Everybody’s looking for opportunities to showcase their product and generate more revenue,” says Laura Clark, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, and a former news director. (Magid consults for WPRI Providence.) “You control your own destiny by owning your programming, vs. choosing syndication.”

WGHP also extends its noon news to an hour Feb. 3. Both it and WPRI-WNAC are hiring staffers to work the new newscasts. Himes would not divulge how many bodies it has picked up, while WPRI-WNAC has added a photographer/editor and a producer to focus on the 6:30.

Yet the capital required for launching a newscast is relatively modest. “There’s very little cost, and the revenue upside can be pretty substantial if you play it right,” says a veteran GM who asked not to be named.

Highway to Hell

Station execs often cite people’s long workdays as factors in the 6:30’s growth. Around 8.1% of U.S. workers commute 60 minutes or longer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 600,000 commute at least 90 minutes. National unemployment dropped from 8.2% in January 2012 to 6.7% in December 2013, reports the Bureau of Labor, which likely means more cars on the road, and longer rides home.

Not all 6:30 newscasts have found an audience. WGHP may look to Tribune sibling WPIX New York for advice; the CW station launched a 6:30 in September 2009, citing the competition downsizing their news presence, only to kill it within a year. New York viewers looking for local at 6:30 back then had to make do with a double-run of Friends. When WFTV Orlando debuted a 4 p.m. news last June, it scrapped a 6:30 p.m. newscast on sister WRDQ, with management saying it planned to put the news resources into the 4 p.m.

Down in North Carolina’s so-called Piedmont area, WGHP is rehearsing the new 6:30, which features Neill McNeill and Katie Nordeen in the anchor chairs. The station is in an intense news battle with Hearst TV’s WGHP and Gannett-owned WFMY, and Himes likes the opportunity to extend the “MyFox8” brand when the others are showcasing network talent. (Time Warner Cable’s News 14 Carolina is one local competitor in the 6:30 slot.)

“Our talent has a lot of lineage,” says Himes, “and it makes all kinds of sense for us to control our destiny with more local programming.”

Gannett Eyes Early Fringe, Access For Homegrown Hits

The massive acquisition of Belo under its belt, Gannett is progressing on its plans to develop homegrown shows to eventually run in its expanded group. Internally dubbed “Social TV,” Gannett’s R&D plans aim to harness the intensifying relationship between television and social media, says Dave Lougee, Gannett Broadcasting president. “There’s a naturally organic relationship that we, as an industry, have yet to really program to,” he says.

Gannett is developing projects for the early fringe and access dayparts, and is speaking with a host of potential partners, including prominent over-the-top digital players in an effort to “seed innovation,” says Lougee. He would not provide details, including a target date for the debuts.

The “viral videos” show RightThisMinute, a joint effort from local broadcasters Cox, Scripps and Raycom, marries TV and social media, while Scripps-produced The List also seeks to capture social buzz. Lougee suggests syndicators have not yet nailed the TV-plus-social formula.

Gannett’s research on the topic has been extensive, he says, revealing that two-thirds of viewers have an Internetconnected device within reach while watching TV. “We’ve gotten an enormous amount of validation that it is an untapped opportunity,” says Lougee.

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.