Newscasts Get Digital Debuts

WHNT Huntsville, Ala., launched a 9 p.m. newscast on Feb. 1, but viewers could still find CSI: Miami in its usual time and place on the CBS affiliate. That’s because the Local TV-owned station debuted WHNT News 19 at 9 on its digital channel, making it one of the few stations in the country producing a newscast solely for a multicast channel.

The primetime newscast, which features interactive elements such as anchors reading viewer e-mails on the topic of the day, is actually the second news program that’s unique to WHNT’s digital channel; the station launched a 7 a.m.-to-8 a.m. news on WHNT2 in September.

President/General Manager Stan Pylant says there’s ample opportunity to find significant viewership in DMA No. 81 at 9 p.m., when most of the competition is airing network fare. “It’s a convenience factor for viewers,” he says. “The 9 p.m. news is not a rehash of anything we did at 6—it’s different anchors and different content.”

While many station executives are painting a prettier economic picture at their stations these days, several are becoming more bullish on plans to launch unique programming on their digital channels. Some go the network route, affiliating with entertainment channels such as This TV or Spanish-language channels like Estrella TV. Others keep it local with around-the-clock weather or a mix of sports and news, often simulcasting or rebroadcasting a newscast from the mother station.

The concept of airing an original newscast on a digital channel, however, is rare. Besides WHNT, those doing so include Local TV’s WNEP Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, which has a 7 a.m.-to-9 a.m. program and a new 10 p.m.-10:35 p.m. news on its digital channel; and Meredith’s WNEM Flint-Saginaw, which airs a 4 p.m. newscast. (Both WHNT and WNEP air Retro TV on their digital channels, too.)

Some believe it’s a smart use of a station’s digital reach—a means for better targeting an area’s subsets, such as Hispanic viewers or those in the less-represented half of a hyphenated market. “It’s a way to get advertisers on your air that maybe couldn’t afford the main broadcast,” says Crawford Johnson & Northcott co-founder Bruce Northcott. “It’s also an opportunity to serve an audience that might feel ignored. I think it’s a terrific idea.”

So does WNEP President/General Manager Chuck Morgan, who debuted the 7 a.m.-to-9 a.m. news block on the Pennsylvania powerhouse’s .2 channel last March, and launched the 10 p.m. newscast on Jan. 1 after the station’s contract to produce a 10 p.m. news for rival WOLF ended. “We saw an opportunity that we thought existed in the market,” Morgan says, “a chance to provide what no one else in the market was providing.”

Of course, stations have struggled to get viewers—and advertisers—to their digital channels, a problem that’s compounded when several cable and satellite partners are involved in distribution. WNEP relies on contests to promote the 10 p.m. news; viewers call in with a keyword, and talent spins a wheel at the end of the newscast to see what the selected caller has won. WHNT promoted the new 9 p.m. program with its Clear Channel radio partners and drove viewers to the debut by airing a forum featuring Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial hopefuls at 7 p.m., and a second run of Dr. Oz at 8.

WHNT is the No. 2 revenue station in Huntsville-Decatur-Florence, according to BIA/Kelsey, trailing Raycom’s WAFF. It’s an early-to-bed market, with much of the local population up at dawn for federal government jobs. “This gives them the opportunity to get caught up on the all the day’s news, weather and information before they go to bed,” says News Director Denise Vickers.

Pylant brought three new staffers on board to help with News 19 at 9. While he’ll have to wait until March for ratings, Pylant says advertisers are willing to take a chance on the digital newscast. The first two weeks of inventory were sold out by the launch date, and the whole of February is 80% spoken for. Spots sell for 30%-50% what they go for on WHNT’s 10 p.m. news, the price point attracting a bevy of new advertisers in addition to ones from the main channel.

“Advertisers say, 'We trust you, we’ll take a chance on this,’” Pylant says. “They’ve truly responded in a positive way.”

Pylant adds that WHNT is simply sticking to its mandate: “We’re owned by Local TV—we’re all about local news. We’re using our digital channel in a way that viewers respond to.”

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Michael Malone

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.