Station Group of the Year: Hearst Television
Plenty of viewers flock to the news outlet that best aligns with their point of view, but the Hearst Television group is focused on breaking down the walls that divide us and pushing communities to focus more on their shared values than their differences. Motivated by Hearst TV local coverage of a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 and at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the company launched Project CommUNITY this year, an initiative that dives deep into the issues that divide communities, and celebrates the residents who are hustling to unite people.
There have been town halls and specials, and Project CommUNITY has resulted in close to 100 hours of content across the group. Stations have focused on race relations, gun violence, bullying and other timely issues.
“We asked each station to create a plan,” Hearst Television senior VP of news Barbara Maushard said. “They produce stories to highlight the differences, and bring people from different sides together.”
KOAT Albuquerque did an immigration special. WTAE Pittsburgh brought survivors of shootings in Pittsburgh and Parkland, Florida, together to talk about recovery. WISN Milwaukee invited conservatives and liberals for dinner and an open discussion of the issues on which they clash. “That allowed the participants to understand each others’ perspectives a little better,” Maushard said.
Jordan Wertlieb, Hearst TV president, said the Project CommUNITY specials often win their time periods. “There’s an appetite for unique local content,” he said.
The Hearst TV stations’ weekly CommUNITY Champion features highlight just that — the people who are working hard to bridge the gaps within their markets.
Hearst Television owns 33 stations, including WBAL Baltimore, WCVB Boston, KCRA Sacramento, WESH Orlando and KMBC Kansas City. The stations reach 19% of the U.S. population.
The presidential election less than a year away will surely divide the country, but the Hearst group, long a leader in top-notch political coverage, is focused on clear, fact-based, impartial reporting on local politics with its Commitment 2020 venture. In the first 10 months of 2019, Hearst Television stations produced more than 100 hours of political coverage, including multiple debates. WLKY Louisville, for example, produced the gubernatorial debate in Kentucky, and WDSU New Orleans had tireless coverage of the Nov. 16 Louisiana gubernatorial runoff.
Partnering with FactCheck.org to distribute the most, and best, content possible, the stations play a vital role in covering the presidential footrace. KCCI Des Moines will detail all of the caucus action in Iowa, and WMUR Manchester has New Hampshire news blanketed.
“We’re digging deeper into understanding the different perspectives and different issues,” Maushard said. “We’re helping our audience better understand the issues of importance.”
Pitching in with the stations’ coverage is Hearst Television’s Washington, D.C., bureau, which has 15 staffers and connects elected officials in the Beltway with the viewers they represent.
“Hearst stations breathe localism, investigative journalism and service to communities every day,” National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO Gordon Smith said. “With Jordan Wertlieb serving as chairman of the NAB board, I’ve seen the Hearst commitment to viewers up close and personal. Bar none, there’s no better TV station group in America.”
Working out of the Washington bureau is the group’s National Investigative Unit, which launched in 2018. Mark Albert, formerly a correspondent at CBS News, heads the unit, which focuses on providing national context to local stories.
Also playing a key role in tackling the vital issues is weekly program Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, produced by the Hearst group. The weekend show prides itself on offering “conversations as diverse as America.”
O’Brien, former anchor on CNN and correspondent on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, is the host and the producer. Emerson Coleman, Hearst Television senior VP of programming, said the show began modestly late in 2015 but has “grown and developed into a national show,” reaching 93% of the country, and airing in 150 markets.
“The Sunday-morning shows tend to be Washington insiders,” Wertlieb said. “Stories on Matter of Fact reflect the diversity of our country.”
Hearst TV has also been connecting with viewers, and users, on digital platforms. The channels Stitch and Dispatches from the Middle launched late in 2018 and found their footing this year. Stitch offers uplifting stories from around the country, a welcome respite from the house fires, car accidents and crime that can dominate local news. Facebook Watch program Dispatch expands on compelling stories produced by the Hearst TV stations. Coleman has crafted Stitch stories into on-air specials; the next premieres in February.
Both Stitch and Dispatches From the Middle succeed in bringing Hearst TV stories to younger viewers who may not tune in to their local station at 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. “They highlight great storytelling,” Wertlieb said. “They give stories more time to breathe than they might get in a newscast.”
Hearst TV stations are local powerhouses. Wertlieb proudly noted that 84% of them in Nielsen metered markets were No. 1 or No. 2 in the May news ratings. In September, WTAE Pittsburgh reported on the closing of a home for people with developmental the statehouse requiring the testing of rape kits.
The station group has shifted to impressions-based advertising sales, a move it announced in September, adding momentum to a top business initiative for broadcasters. Using impressions to sell ads means shifting away from traditional ratings, which can be very imprecise at the local level, and offering a metric that’s more comparable with those used on other video platforms. Marketers want to buy time in a wide range of video, not just television, and the Hearst TV sales strategy better lines up with this mindset. Wertlieb noted “almost universal acceptance” among marketers with this gameplan.
“They’re all in agreement with the concept,” he added.
Better But Not Much Bigger
While consolidation has defined local broadcast over the past several years, with group chiefs stressing how they need to be giant to stay ahead in the market today, the Hearst TV group has been modest in its acquisitions, picking up a couple of CW affiliates in recent years. Hearst TV looks at every deal, Wertlieb said, and has made bids in many of them. But the group remains disciplined in its acquisitions strategy.
Wertlieb believes the day-to-day is not more difficult for Hearst TV as the groups it competes with get larger. As long as the stations hold a top spot, they’ll call the shots. “Being the best brand in the marketplace, you’ve got enough scale to do what you need to do,” he said.
The year 2019 is a ho-hum one for local broadcast, with no full-fledged election season and the Olympics a year away. Wertlieb challenges station staffers to decide their own fate. “There are automatic headwinds that are secular to the industry,” said Wertlieb. “Stations have to be self-determined.”
Between their unique community initiatives and stellar local content, the Hearst Television stations in 2019 have been just that. Said Gordon Smith, “B+C could not have picked a more worthy company for TV Station Group of the Year.”
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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