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Smile! You’re on Candidate Camera

While political coverage is dominating local TV news these days, some stations are upping the ante by adding regular programs that further focus on the local issues and candidates. WMAQ Chicago, for one, looks at nine key local political figures each week on Ward Room, which airs Friday at 7 p.m. on the station’s Nonstop digital channel. Ward Room launched as a website in 2010 and debuted on TV earlier this year.

With a former local politician in the White House, the president’s ex-chief of staff as mayor and a recent governor in the pokey, there’s no shortage of buzz-worthy pols vying for attention in Chicago. “There’s a wealth of colorful political characters to follow in this town,” says Frank Whittaker, VP of news and station manager at WMAQ.

While viewers in some markets, such as Ohio and Florida, can’t stomach another political spot, these political shows—several airing just in election season—aim to scrap the spin in favor of substantive discourse. When WESH Orlando’s political reporters were getting resistance from candidates about appearing in debates, they instead invited the pols on to Commitment 2012: Extra, which debuted in the daily 12:30 p.m. slot Oct. 8. “It’s important stuff, and it’s good TV,” says Bob Longo, WESH news director. Following a program featuring two state rep hopefuls, he adds, “You came away with a pretty good idea of what those two guys are about.”

Other new shows tackling local politics include KFSM Ft. Smith (Ark.)’s The City Wire, KING Seattle’s KING 5 News2012 Voters Guide and KNSD San Diego’s Politically Speaking. The latter was scrapped during the recession and returned last spring. Some programs will end on Election Day. Others will continue indefinitely. “We’ll assess it,” says Greg Dawson, VP of news at KNSD. “It certainly fits who we are as a brand.”

Several stations are using their digital platforms to go deeper on politics. WRC Washington runs Press Pass, a year-old webcast helmed by David Gregory, following Meet the Press each Sunday. On Oct. 29 WEWS Cleveland will debut the daily 8 p.m. webcast Your Voice, running through Election Day. The station didn’t have room on-air for such a show, but its managers knew how many users watch multiple screens at once. “We’re trying to help people understand the issues and give them context to what’s going on around them,” says Jill Manuel, WEWS news director. “We’re making it a two-way conversation about the election.”

The shows are not typically a ratings play. Ward Room, airing on WMAQ’s digital channel, averages an 0.1 household rating—meaning about 5,000 adults typically watch. KFSM’s The City Wire did a 1 HH rating/13 share in May, but hits the right crowd. “The show has some buzz in the political community here,” says Rick Bagley, KFSM news director.

WESH’s 12:30 program premiered to a 1 HH rating, but Longo suggests ratings points are not the point. “We’re helping viewers make informed choices,” he says. “I don’t think anyone does that better than a good TV outfit.”

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