Two and a half might not seem like a very substantial number to most, but it’s got great significance at WWJ Detroit. The CBS O&O launched a 2½ minute late mini-newscast in January 2008, which leads into—yes—Two and a Half Men repeats. This past May, WWJ debuted the two-hour First Forecast Mornings program, which features hard-news briefs on the quarter-hour from the Detroit Free Press newsroom that run some 2½ minutes.
WWJ has taken small steps toward building its news presence since CBS bought the station, formerly the urban outlet WGPR, in 1995 and made it a CBS affiliate.
The recent news launches, however modest, have been successful enough that VP/General Manager Trey Fabacher is considering adding more mini-newscasts elsewhere on the schedule—either on the CBS station, its sister CW outlet, WKBD, or both. “It’s helped us create a personality and local content that the station did not have before,” he says. “To say that has been huge is an understatement.”
While some might wonder just how much punch a newscast the size of a commercial pod might pack, programs running from 2½ to 12 minutes are finding viewers from Detroit to Knoxville to San Diego. The “snackable” programs hit home at a time when consuming short clips on YouTube and station sites is part of life for many, and may be just the right size for those intent on getting the next day’s weather before turning in for the night.
“In today’s world, where everybody’s racing around, we thought it just made sense,” says XETV San Diego VP/General Manager Richard Doutre Jones, who recently marked a year of offering “all today’s news and tomorrow’s weather” on the Grupo Televisa-owned CW affiliate’s 11@11 program and corresponding Webcast.
Other stations offering truncated newscasts include Acme’s WBXX Knoxville, which partners with Gannett’s WBIR to air the 12-minute 10 News at 10 on CW20, and an 11-minutes-at-11-p.m. format on Weigel’s WBND South Bend. KPSP Palm Springs, meanwhile, airs the 15-minute Eye on the Desert, a local lifestyle program produced out of the newsroom.
The bite-sized local programs are a way for a station to get into the news game without shelling out millions to launch a full newsroom, or a means for extending their news brand into a new time slot. For others, a shorter newscast effectively captures a sleepy market’s modest amount of breaking news, or helps avoid cannibalizing the newscast put out by a news partner in the market.
With weather still the main reason viewers tune into news, most stations are simply seeking to scoop the competition with tomorrow’s forecast. “Sometimes people who stay up for news just want to go to bed,” says Doutre Jones, whose program typically offers a few live shots and some content that aired an hour earlier, and does a 2.0 household rating on a good night. “In 11 minutes, boom—they get everything they need.”
For WBXX, it’s a way to keep primetime viewers tuned in after the prime credits have rolled. “It gets us into late fringe immediately,” says WBXX VP/General Manager Dan Phillippi, who follows the 12-minute program with King of Queens. “It’s done very well for us in terms of grabbing viewers and keeping viewers.”
10 News at 10 posted a 2.4 household rating on Sept. 28, Phillippi says—a healthy boost over its 1.5 lead-in, and a respectable showing against the 4.9 that Fox affiliate WTNZ posted for its 10 p.m. news.
LIVING OFF THE GRID
Of course, airing a program with such an odd length can make reading the ratings difficult in some markets (“Nielsen does quarter-hours—I wish it was to the minute,” Phillippi says), and can throw the grid out of whack. WBXX starts shows on the :12s and :42s from 10:12 until the middle of the night. XETV starts Seinfeld at 11:13, and trims commercial breaks until the station is back on a traditional schedule by 1 a.m.
WWJ has actually worked the patchwork start times into its marketing. The station kicks off chief meteorologist Jim Madaus’ 11 p.m. mini weather 'cast with the catchy tagline “Two and a Half Men starts in 2½ minutes.” Fabacher says the slogan has made enough of an impact that Madaus frequently hears it from viewers when he’s out and about in Detroit. (With The Late Show With David Letterman starting at 11:35, WWJ can push a few minutes past 11:30 without screwing up the schedule.)
With stations increasingly looking to control their own destiny with local programming, such mini-newscasts increase, however modestly, the content—and inventory—they own. Fabacher says the 2½ minute First Forecast, which includes a minute of commercial time, taps a new vein of advertisers for WWJ. “It definitely attracts a handful of advertisers who might only buy news,” he says. “Before, we couldn’t compete for those dollars.”
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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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