Starting next month, WCAU Philadelphia hopes to revitalize its afternoon news block by going back to basics. The NBC Universal-owned station, which runs local news from 4 to 6:30 p.m., is switching from traditional formats to more long-form, service-driven newscasts hosted by a single anchor.
“You are always trying to think about what you can do to break out of the clutter,” says VP of News Chris Blackman. “When you look at the three different stations in this market doing news in the afternoon, there’s not a lot content-wise that distinguishes us. I started to think about what stories we get the most response to and which ones seem to impact the most people.”
News in Philadelphia, the country’s fourth-largest market, is dominated by ABC’s WPVI, which airs The Oprah Winfrey Show as a lead-in. Blackman says he’s more concerned about WCAU’s breaking out with original programming than about besting Winfrey. “You don’t really compete against Oprah; you just do your own thing,” he says. “I think this 4 p.m. show will be an attractive option.”
What WCAU does well, he says, are investigative pieces and stories on consumer and health issues, which tend to be the stories viewers are most interested in. Blackman wants to stop focusing on the local news of the day and prioritize the features that set the station apart. “It doesn’t mean that those stories will go uncovered, it just means we’ll be covering them in a different way,” says Blackman. “You can put a reporter on a crime story or a car crash, and, quite frankly, you could have told the story just as well with a voiceover and a sound bite.”
The shift reflects the larger vision of NBC Universal, which has been trying to expand local programming on all of its stations, with varying degrees of success.
HEALTH, ENTERTAINMENT, INVESTIGATIVE
From 4 to 5 p.m., Tracy Davidson will anchor All That and More, featuring health and consumer stories. Davidson will report on such topics as identity theft and personal finance, while medical reporter Cherie Bank reports health-related stories. The show will also include entertainment and lifestyle segments, with anchor Tim Lake providing news updates every quarter-hour. At 5 p.m., Vince DeMentri will anchor a newscast featuring investigative stories from WCAU’s team of 30 or so reporters.
“The idea is to go back to putting the emphasis on storytelling and on the reporters,” says Blackman. “For a while, the feeling was that, the more you threw at people, the better chance you had to not have them turn away. You weren’t giving them a chance to breathe. I think that really underestimates the intelligence of our viewers.”
The 6 p.m. newscast, which will be anchored by Lake sans former co-anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, will remain largely the same leading into the NBC Nightly News. Lake and Chenault-Fattah will continue to anchor the station’s flagship newscast at 11 p.m.
The Web will still play a big part in the station’s news operations. WCAU’s site at nbc10.com is one of Philadelphia’s largest in terms of page views, says Blackman. With broadband in half of American homes and video offerings from viewers increasingly expected, “the Website is part of the fabric of what we do every single day,” he says. “The first thing we talk about in our morning meetings is the Web.”
The changes were in motion before NBC Universal announced cutbacks last month, says Blackman, who also plans to take advantage of the resources of the NBC News division and expand the station’s two-year partnership with the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper contributes to news segments all day long, with a standing feature during the 5 p.m. broadcast called “Beyond the Headlines.”
Blackman says he won’t obsess about how the new game plan affects ratings.
“I don’t dwell on how to compete against the others,” he explains. “I dwell on how we can grow our business and how we can be more responsive, useful and relevant to our viewers. I hope this is a model that gives more people a reason to watch us.”
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.