While the media world has been focused of late on NBC's missteps with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, another innovative take on a vital Monday-to-Friday time slot within the NBC group has quietly been catching on with viewers. NBC-owned WCAU Philadelphia retooled its 5:30 p.m. news this season, with each day of the week dedicated to a different topic such as sports, health or consumer issues. In an era when broadcast ratings success stories are hard to come by, the themed newscasts have grown ratings at WCAU when much of the competition has seen decreases.
President/General Manager Dennis Bianchi says the strategy has made the 5:30 news stand out in the crowded content landscape in DMA No. 4. “It has helped differentiate that half-hour news within WCAU's news block,” he says, “and clearly it's differentiated us from our competitors.”
The nightly themes go as follows: Monday is Sports First, Tuesday is viewer-e-mail-driven Your News, Wednesday is economy-related Survive and Thrive, Thursday is health-minded Be Well, Stay Well, and Friday features the positive-stories-only The Good News Is.
The 5:30 strategy was hatched by VP of News Chris Blackman, who sought to make the newscast stand out within WCAU's 4-to-6:30 p.m. local block. The concept kicked off when the station dedicated Wednesdays at 5:30 to the economy during the midst of the recession last spring. The newscasts featured financial advisors, mortgage tips and a jobs ticker at the bottom of the screen, among other survival aides. Station executives were encouraged by its early performance. “We saw that it certainly didn't hurt in the ratings,” Blackman says. “We started to think, maybe we could do this on other nights.”
He next took WCAU's crime-free Good News segments, which added positive vibes to the station's news product, and gave them their own half-hour on Fridays, starting in July. “We literally say on the air, 'Go get the kids—it's a newscast they can watch, too,'” he says.
The nation's obsession with swine flu late last year launched Thursday's health newscasts, while the local sports teams' prominent place in Philly residents' hearts essentially extended the Sunday-night sports show to Monday at 5:30. (Certainly, the Eagles' signing of ex-con Michael Vick gave the hosts plenty to opine about.)
With just Tuesday unthemed, Blackman made that the home of the interactive Your News program. Costs for the themed programs, he says, are comparable to those for WCAU's traditional newscasts.
Almost four months since all five days went themed, the concept seems to be clicking. Both Bianchi and Blackman are quick to point out that the ratings gains are quite modest, but they're gains nonetheless. Since the themes were fully in place on Oct. 5, WCAU has seen growth at 5:30 on Mondays (1.1 in adults 25-54 to 1.4), Wednesdays (1.1 to 1.2) and Thursdays (0.9 to 1.1), compared to the same period last year. Tuesdays are flat, while Friday is down from a 1.1 to a 1.0. (Presumably, some Philly residents can live without their weekly dose of good news.)
With no major wild cards other than the themes affecting year-over-year performance, WCAU is averaging a 1.2 rating at 5:30, up 9% from the previous year's 1.1, climbing from No. 3 to No. 2 locally at 5:30. Modest as this growth may be, WCAU Director of Research Joan Erle says it stands out because broadcast PUTs (People Using Television) are down 9% this season in Philly. “When your numbers are climbing as the pie is shrinking, that's a good thing,” she says. “That makes us think it's going in the right direction.”
WCAU's ratings improvement is also notable as many NBC O&Os are de-emphasizing their news product amidst sliding ratings. WNBC New York, for one, yanked its 5 p.m. news in the fall for the upscale lifestyle show LX New York, while the group relaunched its Websites as buzzy hipster sites more than news sources. Other NBC-owned stations may adopt some version of WCAU's themed approach. Blackman says he's detailed the initiative for news directors in the group and has gotten some interest, though most don't have a 2½-hour news block to jazz up.
WCAU may never take over the top spot in Philly, which ABC-owned WPVI has held for decades (see Market Eye, Jan. 11), and CBS O&O KYW has its eye on, too; WCAU was well behind both in the late news race in November. But Blackman says the 5:30 approach has, among other things, helped make WCAU's surrounding newscasts fresher. The sales department, meanwhile, is finding new clients for the specialty 'casts. “They're thrilled to be able to sell outside of the traditional news block,” he says.
A 'RISKY' PROPOSITION
Several news veterans said it was the first they'd heard of nightly news themes. Some find the concept perilous. Al Primo, who launched the Eyewitness News concept with KYW Philadelphia decades ago (KYW was an NBC O&O at the time), questions the logic of shaking up the traditional local news formula. “I think that kind of major change is a very risky proposition,” he says. “The audience is used to getting information the good old-fashioned way. If it's not broken, why fix it?”
Another news observer says that WCAU's approach alienates viewers who may not care about sports or health or balancing their budget. “The different themes give people reason to watch,” he points out. “But it also gives them reason not to watch.”
Blackman says WCAU will yank a theme if it ends up dragging down the bunch. But for now, all five days are showing some degree of promise. “There's nice growth at 5:30,” he says. “The newscasts seem to be generating viewer interest.”
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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.