Local Production Enjoying a Renaissance Among Stations

Jul 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After shying away from local production for years, station executives across the country are finding new profits from homegrown adaptations of prime-time hits.

Stations from New York to San Francisco, from Jacksonville, Fla., to Oklahoma City and beyond, are producing local versions of reality shows, specials and other event programming that often features local news talent. These shows boost the stations’ brands, enhance production skills and harvest new revenue from product placement and integration deals, multimarket sponsorships, advertising buys and even syndication.

“You will see more local programs launched in the next five years than you have in the previous five years,” Dave Lougee, senior VP of the Northwest Television Station Group for Belo News, said of the phenomenon.

Among other recent local successes, Post-Newsweek-owned WJXT-TV in Jacksonville has syndicated its local talent series “Gimme the Mike!” to some 30 other stations, Hearst-Argyle’s ABC affiliate KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City plans this month to revisit its local adaptation of “Extreme Makeover” with its take on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and last weekend NBC owned-and-operated WNBC-TV in New York was scheduled to premiere a half-hour special about high-tech gadgets, hosted by station meteorologist Chris Cimino.

News has traditionally been the basic revenue engine for local stations, and station executives interviewed for this story said they expect that to long remain the case. That’s because the new forms of non-news programming are seen not as replacements for or competitors to news, but rather largely as complementary extensions of local news, whose resources often are tapped to produce the new original fare.

Mr. Lougee said that having the highest-rated local news program is essential, but original programming is also very important because being well-rounded helps to create and maintain a dominant local position.

Non-news originals that come out of the news departments also can serve as important exercise for news staffs, said Lon Lee, president and general manager of Cowles Publishing-owned KHQ-TV in Spokane, Wash., which debuted its version of “Gimme the Mike!” in July 2004.

“I want this station to have the skills to cover complex breaking news when it happens,” he said. “Gimme the Mike!” has helped build those skills. “We know how to put together a complex lash-up [quick production] and get it on the air quicker than our competitors,” Mr. Lee said.

Local news production appears to be on an upswing itself. Local news budgets, on average, were up 51.2 percent in 2004 compared with 2003, according to a Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University survey.

What’s more, Fox Television Stations, one the biggest station groups in the country, has added 41.5 hours of news programming in 2005, according to a spokeswoman for the group, which owns 34 stations in 26 markets.

WJXT first produced the local talent competition for singers called “Gimme the Mike!” It became a success over the last four seasons, often placing among the top five programs in prime time, said Ann Pace Sutton, VP and station manager of WJXT. The fifth season is already under way. The show’s profits come from product placement, title sponsorship, prize sponsorship and spot buys.

The show is produced in-house with the resources that WJXT uses to produce its daily newscasts, Ms. Sutton said.

After Post-Newsweek got wind of “Gimme the Mike!’s” initial success, the company syndicated the format to other stations, including stations not owned by Post-Newsweek. Post-Newsweek signed a national sponsor, General Motors, whose spots ran during “Gimme the Mike!” in all markets that aired the show.

Ms. Sutton said that syndication was not the station’s original intent. “[The show] had a lot of appeal that, in the end, could be syndicated,” she said.

WJXT’s fifth season of “Gimme the Mike!” premiered July 6 and earned a 5.0 household rating in its 8-8:30 p.m. slot, finishing second only to “Law & Order” and proving that even after four seasons, the show still appeals to audiences, Ms. Sutton said.

Another of WJXT’s popular shows is “Eye on Crime,” which features re-enactments of unsolved local crimes and is hosted by news anchor Rob Sweeting.

Ms. Sutton said she expects her company’s local programming to get stronger and that she plans to add more original shows. “I’m very optimistic. There’s an appetite for local programming from the viewers and the advertisers, and we’re here to make it happen for them,” she said.

At “Gimme the Mike!’s” peak, 31 stations were producing and airing their own versions of the show.

Belo-owned KONG-TV in Seattle has run “Gimme the Mike!” for two seasons, with more on the way, said Jay Cascio, VP of programming and creative services for KONG and KING-TV in Seattle.

“King 5 has a long legacy of local programming above and beyond just newscasts,” he said.

Belo’s duopoly of NBC affiliate KING and independent KONG makes programming easier, Mr. Cascio said. The limited time available on KING is balanced by the unlimited freedom he has to program on KONG. Partial autonomy allows local productions to thrive on both stations.

“Gardening With Ciscoe” is a locally produced show that KING and KONG share. It airs once a week on each station-on KING Saturday mornings and KONG Saturday afternoons. Ciscoe Morris, host of the show, also has gardening segments on “KING 5 News” on Tuesday and Thursday.

Local entertainment programming at KING and KONG complements news programming, which remains an important part of Mr. Cascio’s strategy, he said. KING’s local strip “Evening Magazine” has been on the air since 1986 and consistently places first or second in households and first in key demos, Mr. Cascio said. Also, KONG added two hours of news last summer.

“Anybody who has good ideas that resonate in a local marketplace can sustain business,” said Marv Danielski, VP of marketing and creative services for Hearst-Argyle.

One Hearst-Argyle station that is taking innovative ideas and generating cash is Oklahoma City’s KOCO. KOCO’s reality special “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover”-inspired by ABC’s “Extreme Makeover”-was so successful that the station has decided to maintain a stream of “nontraditional” revenue by creating more original programs that rely on brand integration rather than spot buys, said Matt Laws, KOCO creative services director.

“We knew that spot buys were not going to be the only source of revenue for this station,” he said.

The alternative revenue strategy for “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover” netted the station more than $100,000, the majority of which was generated through means other than spot buys, said Dominique Homsey Gross, sales marketing manager for the station. Ms. Gross said that integrating local companies’ brands was the chief profit generator for the show.

Brand integration at the local level will not necessarily work in every market, but Mr. Laws and Ms. Gross said that it is a sustainable strategy in KOCO’s market.

“It’s a very strong way to make some nontraditional money,” Mr. Laws said.

KOCO is planning another cycle of “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover” and will use the same nontraditional revenue formula for its next special, “5’s Home Team,” a home redesign show inspired by “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The show, slated for a July prime-time slot, features local companies for construction, furniture, landscaping, fencing, appliances, flooring and everything else that redesigning a house requires. Local companies are the key, Mr. Laws said.

“They’re not only buying schedules on our program, they’re paying to do the house,” he said.

After the debut of “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover,” Mr. Laws started getting phone calls from stations all over the country asking how KOCO did it, he said. “They want to know about the basics-process, execution, pulling in the advertisers, keeping everyone happy and making money,” he said.

KOCO brought in outside production companies to produce the shows: RPK Productions and Mac Troy Productions were tapped for both. “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover” took nine months to produce and “5’s Home Team” made its initial casting call in November 2004.

Other local stations are successfully using local news talent to create original programs.

At Viacom Television Stations Group’s KPIX-TV and KBHK-TV in San Francisco, non-news programming has grown in the past two years and appears to be on an upward swing, said Akilah Monifa, spokeswoman for the stations. The weekly half-hour show “The Great Outdoors With Tom Stienstra” debuted in early 2005 on KBHK-TV, a UPN affiliate, and has continued to perform consistently in its time slot. In the show, Mr. Stienstra, outdoor reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, travels to “the most beautiful sites of Northern California” every week.

Another successful local show that performs consistently and has been on the air just over a year is “The Real Deal With Jeanette Pavini,” a weekly consumer awareness show that is produced by KBHK. Ms. Pavini is the consumer reporter for KPIX news.

Ms. Monifa said that local programming is not always just about the numbers.

“The idea was to have new programming and use as much in-house talent as possible,” Ms. Monifa said.