Duopoly kin compete for morning wins

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Viacom duopolies are turning into the local-news version of tennis’ sister act, Venus and Serena Williams-both competing spiritedly with their eyes on the same prize.
The Viacom stations are out to rack up Nielsen ratings points for newscasts that compete directly with news programs on sister stations. In Philadelphia, UPN station WPSG-TV will launch a 5 a.m.-to-8 a.m. “headline news service” on Tuesday that will go head to head with two hours of the more traditionally paced local news and the first hour of “The Early Show” on sister CBS station KYW-TV.
In Boston, on Sept. 16, it will be business as usual from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. for WBZ-TV’s popular morning news bench of Kerry Connolly, Scott Wahle and meteorologist Barry Burbank. At 7 a.m., viewers will have the option of catching the first hour of “The Early Show” on CBS or switching to WSBK-TV on Channel 38 to spend another hour with WBZ’s morning troika, who will be offering up a concentrated blend of local news you can use-headlines, traffic, weather and sports-until 8 a.m.
The thought of two members of the same family competing for news viewers at the same time is no different than Ford or Procter & Gamble offering more than one choice of car or soap, or multiple radio stations owned by the same company competing in the same market, say Viacom station executives who are out to raise the Nielsen ratings profiles and profit margins of the 39-station group.
“The thing I love about duopoly is that what we bring is a lot of resources, and I want to optimize all those resources,” said Fred Reynolds, president of the Viacom Television Stations Group. “It’s not about the cost side of things. It’s about getting better programming that is local in focus, and that’s the beauty of having two stations in one market. If they compete, cool.”
“As long as you come to one of the two stations, I’m happy,” he added. “I’m agnostic.”
An outsider might think that CBS executives, historically unable to field a network morning show that has been anything but an also-ran, would not want to gamble that the local gains won’t come at the expense of “The Early Show.”
“It really isn’t about `The Early Show,”’ said Ed Goldman, general manager of WBZ and WSBK. “We are really creating an alternative. We are not trying to compete with `The Early Show.’
We want to beat the `Today’ show.”
In Boston, where commercial TV stations have been without ratings since May in a standoff with Nielsen Media Research, WBZ’s local early news may finish No. 1, but “The Early Show” tends to finish third in competition with NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Mr. Goldman envisions “The Morning News on UPN 38” as being faster with a younger feel, but still giving the viewer what he or she needs at a “selfish time of day”-the early morning, when they don’t want to have to wait until local windows in “The Early Show” at 25 minutes and 55 minutes after the hour to find out what awaits them when they head out to work. (That local co-op will be simulcast on WBZ and WSBK.)
The WSBK morning show comes a year earlier than planned because Mr. Goldman in July found himself unexpectedly able to negotiate a time slot switch for syndicated children’s programming, freeing up the 7 a.m.-to-8 a.m. hour. “The question was: `Can we do this in this short a time?”’ he said.
While Mr. Goldman is drawing from the WBZ newsroom (which also produces WSBK’s 10 p.m. news) for the additional hour of news, it is another Viacom family resource that is enabling WPSG in Philadelphia to get into the news business in the early morning, where HUT levels have been rising for several years.
WPSG General Manager Kevin O’Kane’s new show is produced by KYW Newsradio, which is owned by Viacom’s Infinity. The hour, titled “KYW Newsradio This Morning,” is modeled after the radio station’s format and is anchored by KYW Newsradio’s Beth Trapani from a desk in the radio station’s studio. There will be video from KYW-TV and weather reports from KYW-TV’s Tom Lamaine.
“There is a niche that’s available,” Mr. O’Kane said.
Announced in early June, the new news show has been in discussion “for at least a year,” said Mr. O’Kane, who has been running paid programming in the slot. “Paid is just what it is until you can come up with something better,” said Mr. Reynolds, who believes that on the UPN stations, which have to program 22 hours or more a day, the only way to grow is with better entertainment, sports and, perhaps, news.
“I have not forced news on anyone,” Mr. Reynolds said. “I say to the general managers: If you think there’s an underserved market of viewers, that they’re not getting something-local, because that’s what we can do best-then you should look at it. But you should look at getting the local sports franchises; you should look at getting the best possible syndicated programming. So those are the three rungs we are going to go after.”
Searching for a niche
An empty niche does not necessarily guarantee success. WSBK launched a 7 p.m. newscast on Labor Day 2001 but shelved it late last winter. “I think we kind of got hung up in the Sept. 11 attack and people went to the more traditional [outlets], but we then moved to a 10 p.m. news which is doing fine,” Mr. Reynolds said.
In Los Angeles, news-heavy independent station KCAL-TV already was competing with KCBS-TV newscasts at noon and 4 p.m. when KCAL was acquired by Viacom from Young Broadcasting in mid-May. Now, several times a day, anchors from both stations share an amiable bit of cross-talk designed to tell viewers where to tune if they want to continue watching news. Starting Tuesday, the two stations, which produce some 11 hours of local news each weekday, will divvy up the 4 p.m.-to-5 p.m. hour, with KCAL anchors handing off to KCBS anchors at 4:30 p.m.
KCBS-KCAL general manager Don Corsini is hoping the cross-promotions can “enhance the visibility of KCBS,” especially when there is big breaking news. On July 18, when authorities in San Diego detained Alejandro Avila in the kidnapping and killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, KCAL had exclusive reports and momentum. KCAL scrapped the 15-minute sportscast regularly scheduled at 10:45 p.m. weeknights and “tossed hot” to KCBS, Mr. Corsini said. “That night it was a perfect example of how this is working.”