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Not Great News for Late News

With late newscasts falling as much as 10%-20% in major markets from November 2005 to November 2006, stations are rethinking how they offer news. News consultants say people are up earlier, home later, and to bed later—which bodes poorly for the 11 p.m. news, for decades a crucial chunk of a station's revenue. As a result, stations such as Chicago's WMAQ are starting their news earlier in the morning, while increasingly focusing on their digital offerings.

In that one-year period, the late news in the top 10 markets dropped 10% in households, from an average 6.7 rating/13 share in November 2005 to an average 6.0/12, according to data compiled by Nielsen Media Research.

That trend tends to hold true among each of the Big Three network stations. In New York, WABC's 11 p.m. news has dropped 12% in households in the past year, from a 7.5/14 in November 2005 to a 6.6/12 in November 2006. WNBC has fallen similarly, while WCBS inched up 1/10 of a ratings point.

In Chicago, the household-ratings average has fallen nearly 9% year-to-year, dipping even further during the latest May sweeps. Chicago is one of the country's strongest news markets, however, with ABC O&O WLS leading the way. In November 2005, the powerhouse station scored a 10.8/18 among households at 11 p.m., seeing only a small drop this past November at a 10.6/17. But CBS' WBBM dropped 8% year to year, while NBC's WMAQ fell 11%.

It's the same story in Philadelphia, where the late news has fallen 12% year- to-year. ABC's market leader, WPVI, has seen the biggest drop, with a 20% loss.

“We all know the news by 11 p.m., so we're not going to stay up to watch it,” says Web news consultant Steve Safran. “We don't get home at 5:30, and we don't go to bed at 11:30 p.m., so stations need to give us this stuff when we want it.”

This is grave news for stations. According to media-research firm Borrell Associates, stations, on average, take in 30% of their revenue from local newscasts. Of that 30%, 60%-65% comes from the early-evening news, 35%-45% from late news.

It's not just the 11 p.m. news that's feeling the effects of a shift in lifestyle patterns. “People are getting up so early because of work, kids and so forth, and they don't get home in time to watch the 5 or 6 p.m. news,” says Steve Schwaid, senior VP of news and programming at the NBC TV Stations Group.

To retain their local presence, stations across the country have been starting their newscasts earlier and adding weekend broadcasts. NBC-owned WMAQ Chicago launched a 4:30 a.m. newscast this week, while all the Fox owned-and-operated stations have begun offering news at 5 a.m. in the past year. Their four-hour morning newscasts will lead directly into The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet, which launches Jan. 22.

As digital platforms further fragment the TV landscape, stations are realizing that their only programming advantage over cable networks is strong local news.

“Airing reruns of stuff that you can get anywhere from the Internet to your iPod is not going to be the way to stay competitive,” says one Fox stations executive. “If you don't go local, you're dead.”

Stations also need to offer news all day on all available platforms, say consultants. “Local broadcasters have to do a better job of delivering local news and information,” says Bill Hague, VP of Frank N. Magid Associates. “Whether that information is coming to a computer, cellphone or Blackberry, stations have to be a credible source, like a or”

According to Magid's research, while nearly half of people 35 to 54 years old turn to the Internet first for weather information or sports scores, only 10% turns to the Web first for local news. Says Hague, “We have to do a better job of sending people back and forth between the Internet site and the mother station.”

Even though the nation's viewing patterns are shifting dramatically, late news remains essential in the station world. Many Fox stations, for instance, are adding 11 p.m. newscasts to their late-night lineups. For their part, many station executives insist that the 11 p.m. news is still vital to their bottom line.