A little more than a year ago, CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves said during his upfront presentation that one of the goals of the network’s improved prime-time lineup-with such shows as “CSI” and “Without a Trace”-was to boost the performance of late local news at CBS stations. A year later, that strategy has had mixed success.
A TelevisionWeek analysis of the quarter-hour prime-time lead-in numbers and the late local news numbers from May 2002 to May 2003 in the top 10 markets shows that localism, individual market quirks and local news brands have drawing power equal to or greater than the prime-time lead-in. In those bellwether markets, the percentage of viewers retained from the final quarter-hour of prime time into late local news showed little change year to year for CBS stations. The percentages also changed little for ABC and NBC stations.
Of course, a good lead-in is the goal for any network, but at CBS it’s particularly crucial because many CBS stations have lagged in late news performance. The theory once was that better lead-ins improve the late news ratings since viewers won’t change the channel. But that’s not really the case anymore.
On the flip side, ABC’s prime-time performance has been weak, but many of its owned and affiliated stations still do well in late news. NBC is in the sweet spot-with a strong prime time and strong late news.
To be sure, many CBS stations are up in prime time. Many of the top stations, though, have yet to capitalize on the boost in prime time.
While Viacom’s owned stations have seen some growth in audience retention in top 20 markets such as Boston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Miami, the group as a whole needs to build on its lead, said Fred Reynolds, president of the Viacom Television Stations Group. “I don’t think it can be done in a year, and I don’t think it should take as long as four years,” he said.
Mr. Reynolds talked about the group’s goals. “Some, like KPIX [in San Francisco], have gotten there faster than others. I’ll be satisfied when we are No. 1 in our markets,” he said. “We have a window. We have poured a lot of resources in getting better on-air talent, the best and latest equipment. All of that has been coming into the stations over the last 20 months.
The TelevisionWeek analysis indicated that a powerful lead-in is certainly desirable both to drive audience into late news and as a promotion platform for the newscast, but what a local station does with it is more important and may be the magic elixir that keeps the remotes from surfing.
When the lead-in is strong, the key is to leverage the built-in advantage the network has given a station and generate a bounce. “No matter how the network is doing, we are on our own at 11 and we have to drive that train,” said Arnie Kleiner, general manager of ABC owned-and-operated KABC-TV in Los Angeles.
For the most part, the Big 3 affiliates in the nation’s top 10 markets saw little change in the percentage of viewers retained into their late local news in May 2003 compared with May 2002. In Los Angeles, for instance, KABC and NBC O&O KNBC-TV retained about 75 percent of the final quarter-hour prime-time lead-in viewers into their late local newscasts in both May 2003 and May 2002, while CBS O&O KCBS-TV kept about 55 percent of its audience year to year, based on ratings points.
KCBS, however, did generate slight increases in both late local news and quarter-hour lead-in, so the station is retaining the same portion but from a slightly larger base. Dallas CBS O&O KTVT-TV grew its quarter-hour lead-in to an 8.3/12 in May 2003 from a 6.3/9 in May 2002, and its late news to a 6.4/10 in May 2003, up from a 4.6/7 in May 2002, perhaps one of Viacom’s more compelling examples.
In the New York market, ABC O&O WABC-TV had the strongest retention, keeping about 85 percent of its final quarter-hour prime-time lead-in audience into its news in May 2003, the same percentage as last year, while late local news winner NBC O&O WNBC-TV held onto about 65 percent in both May 2003 and May 2002. The market’s CBS O&O, WCBS-TV, however, did see a jump and managed to hang on to 64 percent of its viewers this May, up from 57 percent last May. Interestingly, the station’s quarter-hour prime-time lead-in was flat year to year.
The CBS flagship station downplayed the importance of the network lead-in. “You want to be less reliant on your lead-in and more reliant on your product,” WCBS general manager Lew Leone said. “That means people are watching you,” he said.
The station is producing more investigative stories, has a higher story count and has opened bureaus in Westchester and Long Island, N.Y., and New Jersey.
In Chicago, the CBS corporate strategy had the opposite effect. Viacom-owned WBBM-TV retained 72 percent of its viewers into its late local news last May and only 61 percent this May, after the strengthened CBS prime-time lineup kicked in. The numbers illustrate this tale: The quarter-hour lead-in rose from a 7.1/10 in May 2002 to a 7.9/12 in May 2003 while late local news declined from a 5.1/8 last year to a 4.8/8 this year.
The long-term goal is to capitalize on the boost the station has had in prime, something WBBM hasn’t done yet.
“As far as holding onto audience, frankly, I had hoped it would be better,” said general manager Joe Ahern. “But I never went into this with the expectation that it would be fixed in one or two sweeps. We accomplished a lot [in Chicago] by getting them to watch prime time.”
Chicago is a quirky news town. ABC O&O WLS-TV is one of the rare stations in the country, along with fellow ABC O&O WPVI-TV in Philadelphia and Belo-owned ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas, that grows its viewership into the late local news.
While WLS still sees an audience bounce in late news of almost 20 percent over its lead-in (or close to 120 percent lead-in retention), the station is down in ratings and share for late local news, from a 13.4/20 in May 2002 to an 11.2/18 in May 2003, and in quarter-hour lead-in, from an 11.4/16 to a 9.6/14. The market’s NBC O&O, WMAQ-TV, by contrast, sustained a dip in prime-time quarter-hour lead-in from a 13.2/19 to an 11.8/18, but was largely flat in late local news with a 10.5/16 in May 2002 and a 10.2/16 in May 2003. That means the station retained 86 percent of its quarter-hour lead-in into late local news this year, up from 80 percent a year ago. “We outperformed vs. the conditions last year,” said WMAQ general manager Larry Wert.
So many variables play into the success of a newscast that singling out the lead-in is difficult. “News organizations in each market have their own local relationships with the marketplace that are based on network, anchors, community, brand identity. As much as my company is looking for that commonality that touches everyone, we are all local DMAs [designated market areas],” Mr. Wert said.
Localism is important, said NBC Television Stations President Jay Ireland. “That’s what distinguishes local television vs. cable news. You want a strong lead-in, but you have to build a strong newscast,” he said.
The San Francisco market bears that out. With the NBC affiliation change in early 2002, audiences began sampling other stations, giving each one a chance to nab new viewers. This May, NBC O&O KNTV saw a 6 percent dip in prime-time lead-in year to year, but no loss in late local news. CBS O&O KPIX-TV still retains about 65 percent of its lead-in audience year to year, but has grown in both prime-time lead-in and late local news. “There is no question we have benefited from our CBS strength in prime time,” said KPIX news director Dan Rosenheim. “It has a given us a great running start into our 11 p.m.”
The station maintained that pace with revamped news, enterprise stories and in-depth coverage. KPIX also has grown ratings for five of six newscasts year to year, suggesting that improvements are in the news product, Mr. Rosenheim said.
There is still some truth to the old-fashioned notion that people don’t want to get up and switch channels. But the advent of the remote has larg
ely changed that.