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Stations Come Out Swinging

Las Vegas viewers will get some fresh counterprogramming at 4 p.m. this fall, as KVVU introduces the afternoon version of its popular morning franchise More. Called More at 4 and featuring a mix of celebs, fashion and other lifestyle content, the show is an alternative to the news and syndicated fare found elsewhere on the Vegas dial.

This is the fourth straight year in which the Meredith station has launched a local program. While economic times are indeed tough—and perhaps tougher in Sin City than anywhere—VP/General Manager Darrin McDonald was committed to not break the streak. “Our entire philosophy is controlling our destiny by creating our own content,” he says. “Hopefully we can create a show that does better than a syndicated show.”

With stations suffering from slashed revenues and similarly slimmer resources, it's a difficult time to launch a local program—which, paradoxically, might make it the perfect time to start swinging. Broadcast executives say this could be the right opportunity to grab share from a downsizing competitor, knock the escalating prices of syndicated programming down a peg, or simply boost the station's market presence amidst an increasingly crowded media landscape.

Several stations in other regions are buying into the philosophy. New newscasts hitting the airwaves this season range from a 4:30 a.m. program on KHOU Houston, a noon show on KSTU Salt Lake City, a 5:30 p.m. news on KDFX Palm Springs and a 7 p.m. on WZVN Fort Myers, among many others. The debutantes are not limited to newscasts: LIN is adding morning lifestyle shows later this year in, among other markets, Indianapolis and Albuquerque; Raycom is launching digital channels in Evansville and Charlotte; and Raycom's WXIX Cincinnati is kicking off a high school football show this Friday.

While it's difficult to measure how this fall's haul of rookie local programming compares to that from past years, several industry watchers believe the 2009 freshman class is a substantial one, especially given the country's miserable economic state. Many station executives believe homegrown offerings provide them with their best chance for survival in a world where a local news shakeout is imminent and the network-affiliate relationship may someday explode.

“The big picture is, there's going to be carnage, and the ones who are not doing [lots of] local news are vulnerable,” says KSTU President/General Manager Tim Ermish. “You've got to be a dominant news player to survive.”

Battling a brutal downturn

Stations have never gone through such a brutal patch. Second-quarter results were a horror show, with well-established companies such as Fisher (-26%) and Scripps (-24%) showing drastically decreased revenue from this same point a year ago. Finding the considerable resources required for quality local news has been exceedingly difficult. New Vision pulls the plug on the 5 p.m. news at WYTV Youngstown on Sept. 21, for one, while Mission Broadcasting scrapped the news department entirely at WYOU Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this past spring.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association revealed earlier this year that 1,200 local television staffers lost their jobs in 2008, representing 4.3% of the workforce. Furthermore, almost 32% of surveyed stations expected to decrease staff size in 2009, compared to 9% that planned to increase.

As a result, stations are largely shuffling around assets to make the new shows possible. A handful are adding bodies: KVVU is hiring three full-timers and one part-timer for More at 4, including a co-host. WDSU New Orleans grabbed WESH Orlando on-air vet Scott Walker for its new 4 p.m. news, while Hubbard's KSTC Minneapolis added a half-dozen staffers to launch the two-hour morning news and half-hour at 9 p.m. that debuted last month.

More typically, stations are doing more with less. LIN will add a few producers for its new lifestyle shows, but Executive VP Scott Blumenthal says automation technology allows the stations to create multi-platform content in a far more efficient manner. “We're not adding hundreds of thousands in expenses,” Blumenthal says. “That's not being responsible to our shareholders.”

The content-pooling craze that hit local television this year has helped some stations free up resources to launch programming. WTXF Philadelphia VP/General Manager Mike Renda, whose station officially kicked off the sharing trend with NBC's WCAU in January, cites their Local News Service partnership as a factor in WTXF launching its 6 p.m. news and extending Good Day Philadelphia another hour. “From a content standpoint, [LNS] allows us to be in more places,” he says.

Several of the newbie newscasts will feature multimedia journalists shooting, editing and producing segments. Derided as “one-man bands” not long ago, such reporters are increasingly viewed as essential to a growing but cost-conscious newsgathering operation. A reporter to be hired at WXIX, which is launching a 6 p.m. newscast in addition to Fox19 Friday Prep Rally, will offer such a skill set. “As we move forward, all of our hires will be multi-faceted and multi-talented,” says WXIX VP/General Manager Bill Lanesey.

While local programming appears to be on the rise, many station managers stress the significant role syndicated programming still plays in their lineup. Dr. Oz is the most eagerly awaited first-run rookie in years; Renda, for one, is excited to have his extended morning news lead into Wendy Williams. But numerous others say the escalating cost of syndicated programming, coupled with what are often rapidly shrinking ratings for syndie studs like Dr. Phil and Oprah, is a factor in their decision to launch local. More at 4 will bump Judge Joe Brown off KVVU, while KDFX's 5:30 newscast replaces King of the Hill.

Launching news often makes more bottom-line sense than buying a program, especially if the new newscast falls in the same daypart as other news programs. Even if a pair of staffers is added, the yearly cost is likely less than shelling out $15,000-20,000 a month for a middling syndicated show. Several general managers speak of the perks of keeping ad inventory outright, and not being subject to the whims of a syndicated outfit, which can jack up fees after a show gets strong ratings—or cancel it when it doesn't. They also mention the premium that spots within news get, and advertisers who prefer to buy news time, such as political candidates and pharmaceutical companies.

“We're firm believers in controlling your own destiny—I'd rather program my own content than leave it in the hands of Debmar or Warner Bros.,” says Frank N. Magid Associates Senior VP Bill Hague. “The world is focused on hyper-local.”

Gearing up for the recovery

Most of the station executives launching local programs speak of planning for a few years out, when the economy is once again firing at full speed. Launching the shows now enables them to have some momentum when the recovery occurs—and also allows stations to keep more of their current staffers on the payroll by adding extra revenue-creation duties to their plates.

“We want our employees around for the turnaround; we want to surge ahead when the recovery happens,” says Raycom's retiring senior VP Marty Edelman. “We're No. 1 or No. 2 in our markets, and we don't want to lose that position.”

While few would argue that launching local programming is a healthy development for the news business, some express concern that stations doing so without additional resources may simply be reheating stale content. Stations have an array of technology under their ceilings designed to make newsgathering robust, and industry-watchers hope they're availing themselves of this capability.

“If you're recycling content from the morning show or—heaven forbid—the night before, you're not fulfilling your promise to serve the community,” says RTNDA Chairman/KOMU Columbia, Mo., News Director Stacey Woelfel. “But if you're hiring more people to do more [original] news, that's a great thing.”

Many across the country are doing just that. KSTC General Manager Rob Hubbard says the station's notable increase in staff—and local programming—shows viewers just how committed it remains to the Twin Cities. “News is where we can really make a difference and control our future,” he says. “It's what we do best.”