When WISN Milwaukee dispatched a news crew to Germany to report on local military personnel, the mission was twofold: report for newscasts and for local prime time newsmagazine On Assignment. In March, the Hearst-Argyle–owned ABC affiliate will air an On Assignment edition that reveals a specific view of the war on terror.
Nationwide, such network-style newsmagazines are gaining ground. Some are monthly or quarterly specials, whereas WCVB Boston's Chronicle airs weeknights at 7:30 p.m.
The format allows stations to showcase its anchors in the field. Plus, it lets them control production costs and ad inventory while building their brand and community ties. Station execs also see the possibility of multiple airings: Newsmagazines could find a home on digital multicast channels that would repeat newscasts and local shows. “We're doing what stations used to do: commit to local news and information,” says Frank Biancuzzo, WISN president/GM.
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Still, the format is difficult to pull off. Scheduling is a challenge. Available real estate on a traditional affiliate's schedule is rare. But several stations are succeeding. WCVB passed on shows like Jeopardy! to keep Chronicle in prime access because the 23-year-old show “is a hallmark of this station,” says WCVB President/GM Paul La Camera. Chronicle regularly garners an 8 rating, outdistancing Entertainment Tonight and Extra.
Similarly, on Sept. 14, WISN's On Assignment recorded an 11 rating/16 share, beating out Law & Order: SVU on NBC affiliate WTMJ. The special also posted higher ratings than the 3/5 Nielsen marks that other metered-market ABC stations earned that hour from Mark Cuban's since- canceled reality show The Benefactor. Independent stations, such as Young Broadcasting's KRON San Francisco, unconstrained by network programming commitments, frequently offer in-depth specials.
Some stations take a different approach. NBC's flagship WNBC New York can't bump regular shows like The West Wing for local programming. “New York represents 7%-8% of the U.S. TV homes,” says President/GM Frank Comerford. “We try to clear everything NBC offers.” Instead, WNBC offers original fare on weekends; for example, Jane's New York, a monthly show hosted by popular anchor Jane Hanson, airs Saturdays at 7. “It's the highest-visibility timeslot where I can have something consistently,” he says.
A big concern is staff. Most stations have one or two programming staffers, not the staffed crews of decades ago. “Now we rely on syndication to develop shows,” says Dennis Swanson, EVP/COO of Viacom's station group.
To solve the manpower shortage, WNBC outsources some production on Jane's New York. Others, like WISN, use their news staffers but work on longer lead-times. In San Francisco, one network magazine spinoff is trickling down to local TV, CBS-owned KPIX.
KPIX is honoring legendary 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt's dream to take his show on the road with 30 Minutes Bay Area, a localized version of the venerable magazine. Says VP of News Dan Rosenheim, “We can illuminate local events and issues.”
The quarterly series premiered in November and echoes 60 Minutes' ticking clock, heavy voiceovers and hard-hitting investigative pieces. Hewitt is a consulting executive producer and screens pieces before they air. A second episode, slated for March 13, will feature a report on the California penal system and a famed local choreographer. The timeslot was a no-brainer: 30 Minutes Bay Area leads into 60 Minutes on Sunday evenings.
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