Live at 11? Maybe not for long

Was the elimination of local news at three TV stations in recent weeks —including in major market St. Louis—a series of isolated cases of stations unable to make news profitable or, as veteran station executive and former consultant Hank Price believes, a sign of things to come?

"There's too much TV news out there," says Price, general manager at Hearst-Argyle's WXII-TV Winston-Salem, N.C., and a former Chicago and Minneapolis GM, "and what's there is too much alike."

A senior fellow at Northwestern University's Media Management Center, he wrote last year that the oversupply of news is exposed by the recent downturn in the advertising market and that, despite the intangibles of branding and community service, stations and groups will consider dropping poorly performing newscasts.

By past standards, most newscasts fail. Audiences are smaller and viewers fragmented. Dick Mallary, head of news for Gannett stations, finds that news numbers that can win a local race today would barely have registered even a decade ago. Because of the political money local newscasts will likely attract this year, Price doesn't expect the scenario to play out immediately. And no one expects news departments to be eliminated by Belo, Post-Newsweek, Gannett or other broadcasters whose core business has always been news. But significant changes in the landscape are likely in a few years.

"I think there's going to be a shakeout," says Audience Research and Development consultant Jim Willi. "Do we really need to have four or five newscasts at the same time in the same market?"

Gaining ratings for a low-rated newscast, particularly in tough economic times, "forces us to reexamine the model," says CBS Group News VP Joel Cheatwood.

Emmis chief Jeff Smulyan commented: "I believe local news is important. But the reality is that, as business gets tougher, the commitment gets tougher. I would like to have full news departments in every station. But can you sustain four or five news departments in every market?" Three, he says, may be more viable.

"You have to look seriously at every property and ask, 'Can we be a serious competitor?'" says Susana Schuler, vice president of news at Nexstar Broadcasting. "Our mission has been to buy in markets where we see news potential: a niche or a need that's not being met. "Sinclair Broadcasting has already ended news at ABC affiliates KDNL-TV St. Louis and WXLV-TV Winston-Salem and at NBC affiliate WTWC-TV Tallahassee, Fla. It is considering central facilities for news and weather, it says, for stations that currently offer no local news.

The company disputes critics' claims that it's indifferent to news, noting that, over the past decade, it has launched or expanded news in 17 markets.

Holston Valley Broadcasting's ABC affiliate WKPT-TV Kingsport, Tenn., and co-owned WAPK-LP Bristol, Va., a low-power UPN affiliate, this month announced the end of news there.

Holston President George DeVault cited conditions hardly unique to his station: the loss of network compensation and digital transition mandates. Some smaller station owners contend that network comp underwrites their news efforts and can be the difference between black or red ink.

In top markets, news can be profitable even in third place or worse. But that, says Cheatwood, "doesn't mean that we like being in third." And the dollar difference between second and third—particularly in a major market—can be enormous. n