In Depth

Stations Cut Costs by Using News -- More or Less

By Elizabeth Jensen

As ad dollars continue to decline, TV stations are looking at new options with news: In some cases, cutting back, but in others, actually expanding the amount of local news they offer.

By stretching their existing news resources into longer or additional news programming they open up more revenue opportunity without adding too much to costs.

When viewers tune to WXMI-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., at 6 p.m. Sept. 21 they’ll see a new hour-long newscast, replacing sitcom reruns. The Fox affiliate is just the latest in a stream of stations that have been adding newscasts at an accelerating clip.

Although many station groups have added news, the trend has been particularly pronounced among Fox-owned stations, as well as those of Tribune Broadcasting, which is currently in bankruptcy. Tribune-owned Fox affiliate WPMT-TV in Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York market is adding a 6:30 p.m. newscast Sept. 21, as well, counterprogramming the national newscasts airing elsewhere in the market. Tribune’s CW affiliate KDAF-TV in Dallas will add a 5:30 p.m. newscast.

Tribune flagship WPIX-TV in New York added a 6:30 p.m. newscast early in September, replacing reruns of “Two and a Half Men.”

Meanwhile a number of Fox-owned stations including WHBQ-TV in Memphis, Tenn.; WOFL-TV in Orlando, Fla.; and WJBK-TV in Detroit just this month expanded their local news programming in the mornings after the cancellation of Fox’s “The Morning Show With Mike and Juliet.” The Detroit station already added more local news last year at 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m., to ratings success.

With local station ad revenue down 27 percent in the first half of the year, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, stations are looking anywhere they can to cut costs. Although in many cases that has meant news layoffs, getting rid of a pricey syndicated show is another way, especially since stations keep all the revenue from spot sales in news, instead of giving some over to the syndicator. Content pooling in some markets has also helped stations save money that can be put toward new programming.

“The biggest overriding factor would be the current economic climate,” said Bill Carroll, vice president-director of programming for Katz Television Group. “That’s in some cases meant cutbacks in the number of hours of news and in some cases, it’s meant the elimination of a syndicated program, and looking at the positive economic impact of expanding news coverage.”

Indeed, there are a few stations that have dropped news to save money, including KAIL-TV, the MyNetworkTV affiliate in Fresno, Calif., which had been airing a struggling 10 p.m. weekday newscast produced for it by KSEE-TV, the local NBC affiliate. On Sept. 14 KAIL started to run “Judge Judy” episodes in the hour instead. In New York, WWOR-TV over the summer trimmed one hour of late news by half and cut its weekend newscasts to save money.

NBC flagship WNBC-TV in New York also on Sept. 14 dumped its long-running “Live at Five” for the new “LX New York” lifestyle program, with fashion, arts, travel and pop culture coverage.

But overall, the trend seems to be to add news. Stations that are already news leaders in their markets are finding it a particularly compelling move, said Carroll. “It’s an incremental cost to what you’re already doing.”

In many cases, stations are adding the newscasts but not more on-air talent, and current anchors are being asked to do double duty, making it a cost-efficient move. Stations are “doing more with less,” said Hofstra University professor Bob Papper, chairman of the school’s journalism department.

Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said newscast automation is a driving force behind many of the switches, and he predicts it could only accelerate the trend.

For a seven-figure investment, he said, stations can buy an automated system that will replace the entire control room staff with one person. “You can basically record the moves of your best director in every show,” he said, calling it a “player piano approach.”

While the systems aren’t cheap, he said, and only a small number of stations have taken the plunge, “the savings on personnel are pretty serious.” New newscasts can be added, he said, “for little or no marginal costs.”

Woelfel said his own KOMU-TV, the University of Missouri-owned NBC affiliate in Columbia, Mo., where he is the news director, already added an hour to its morning show a year ago and is contemplating adding a noon newscast. It’s looking at buying an automation system, as well.

The moves could hurt the license fees syndicated shows eventually get, or even eliminate some of them, Carroll said, noting, “The fewer hours there are, the fewer the opportunities.”

He predicts there could be another big change in 2012, when Oprah Winfrey has said she’ll discontinue her syndicated daily talk show. She’s said that before, and always changed her mind. But, says Carroll, “If Oprah doesn’t come back, then you’re probably going to see a significant amount of news expansion. There’ll never be another Oprah.”