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Viewers tuning in to WKBW Buffalo’s overhauled local morning news might think it’s later than it really is. After all, the ABC affiliate’s new show, airing 5-7 a.m., is looking more and more like the show it leads into—Good Morning America—and it’s no coincidence. Acknowledging ABC’s hot hand in a.m. news, Michael Nurse, WKBW president and general manager, has sought to bottle up some of the mojo coming out of Manhattan each morning.
With a new set, music and graphics; a fresh on-air foursome who are encouraged to banter; a frothier content mix; and a new name—Good Morning having replaced the edgier Eyewitness News This Morning—WKBW is unabashed about its influences. “Everything has more of a Good Morning America feel,” says Nurse, whose news team launched the a.m. reboot on Aug. 15.
‘A’ in Chemistry
Thanks to a mix of softer news, NBC’s Today show missteps and that rarest of TV news attributes— strong chemistry—Good Morning America’s hot streak has been welldocumented, including a close-up of how it all came to be in the book Top of the Morning. Last month, GMA hit a milestone as it marked 52 straight weeks at No. 1. It will be some time before GMA breaks its NBC counterpart’s record— Today’s longest win streak went 16 years—but it clearly has the momentum.
ABC-affiliated stations want a part of that. Some of their GMA influences are subtle, such as WPLG Miami tapping MJ costa to be the morning show’s entertainment reporter earlier this year. Others are more obvious. WTNH Hartford-New Haven (Conn.) and WEWS Cleveland are said to be two sations that are borrowing from the GMA playbook, including shows with Good Morning in their titles. (Neither station’s news director would comment on the record about the changes.)
WAAY Huntsville (Ala.) has incorporated several elements of GMA’s success into its WAAY 31 First-News at Sunrise program, including a chatty weatherman, a newsreader for the harder stuff and a pair of anchors to interview guests in a talk-show setting. “Good Morning America has done it very successfully,” says Art Lanham, VP and general manager at WAAY. “We’re trying to mirror that.”
The revamped show’s household ratings are up almost 23% from May ’12 to May ’13, going from a 2.2 to a 2.7 to give GMA a substantially more robust lead-in.
ABC has been helping the affiliates’ efforts. The GMA talent cut promos for their Buffalo brethren’s relaunch, and the WKBW morning team plans to trek to Manhattan during November sweeps to visit GMA. “The network’s been awesome,” says Nurse. “What we’re doing reinforces the brand.”
Today in [Your Market Name Here]
Stations have been emulating networks’ morning news for decades. Former Today host Katie Couric’s preference for sweaters caused numerous female local morning news personalities to leave the blouses and blazers at home, consultants say. And ABC affiliates have been playing off the GMA name since George Stephanopoulos was in diapers. “There have been morning shows named after Good Morning America forever,” says Laura Clark, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates.
While it’s not quite the growth engine it has been for years, morning news continues to be a revenue generator and brand definer for TV stations. According to a Pew study earlier this year, morning news viewership was off 4.6% from 5 a.m.-7 a.m. in 2012. Early evening was down 6.7%, while late news dropped 7.4%. But Clark says people are watching morning shows for much longer than they used to: What was once an average of 15-20 minutes about a decade ago is more like 40-45 minutes now.
Clark cops to mixed feelings about stations mimicking ABC. Viewers want anchors who add meaningful insights to the news of the day, not partaking in aimless banter, she says. And what works in a Times Square studio may not work in Topeka. “The audience is really sensitive to things that waste their time,” says Clark. “If you’re going to emulate anything, make sure you pick the right things.”
WKBW’s Nurse and his news crew are evermindful of striking the right balance between news and, say, puppy photos on Good Morning. “Viewers want to be informed, but they also want to smile,” he says. “We know we run the risk of appearing trivial; it’s something we’re very sensitive to.”
Ratings have not taken off yet, but Nurse notes that GMA also suffered an initial dip when it tweaked its format. “This is a six-to-18-month strategy,” he says. “This is a long-term play.”
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.
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