Bowl Games Skew ‘World News’ Start

Jan 9, 2006  •  Post A Comment

ABC News went to a lot of expense and trouble to add, among other things, an extra live broadcast of “World News Tonight” every night in the Pacific time zone.

Then the news division asked ABC-owned KABC-TV in Los Angeles and KGO-TV in San Francisco not to carry the revamped “WNT,” now officially anchored by Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, on its first two nights last week.

Why? Because college football bowl games being broadcast on the network would push “WNT” out of its usual 6:30 time slot in the Pacific time zone and into earlier time slots where it was sure to get lower-than-usual ratings.

By not clearing “WNT” at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time and instead devoting that half-hour to local news, the stations got an extra half-hour of local news revenue on both days.

The move also helped reduce “WNT” clearances enough to allow ABC News to omit those two nights’ national ratings from the newscast’s season ratings average. Since the newscast already was scheduled to be pre-empted nationally on New Year’s Day, only Thursday and Friday night from the first week of the Vargas-Woodruff era of “WNT” will go into the ratings record for the season when the broadcast networks’ flagship newscast ratings are released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research. That effectively guarantees “WNT” will drop from its usual second-place ranking to third place for that week.

The strategy was all legal, according to Nielsen, which allows the exclusion of programs whose clearances drop 10 or more points below normal, which for ABC’S “WNT” (as well as CBS’s and NBC’s flagship newscasts), is 99 percent of the country’s TV homes. “WNT” clearances for Tuesday and Wednesday were down 13.5 percent to 88 percent of the U.S. TV universe.

The strategy was not unusual for the network that just ended its 36-year run with “Monday Night Football.” Football sacked “WNT” ratings in the Pacific time zone every Monday for 36 seasons.

“This is a routine thing we’ve done for years,” said ABC News Senior VP Paul Slavin, who characterized the ploy as “a really small thing.”

“The stations certainly don’t mind it,” he said.

Though sources said a number of ABC affiliates in the Pacific time zone also were asked to pre-empt “WNT” last Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Slavin said, “I don’t think we had to ask any other stations.”

According to Nielsen metered-market data for Tuesday and Wednesday, “WNT” also was not broadcast in Seattle or Sacramento, Calif., or in San Diego (where McGraw-Hill-owned KGTV-TV moved “WNT” to its cable-news channel, which reaches about 85 percent of the market).

Sources also said there was debate within the network about the determination to stick to the plan to launch the new “WNT” during a week that would be heavily impacted by long-scheduled bowl games rather than move it to this far more normal week.

Mr. Slavin said the reasons ABC News stuck to the Jan. 3 relaunch date included the desire to start the new year with a new newscast and “the fact that we had Bob heading for Iran. That was too much to resist.”

Mr. Slavin characterized last week as a roller coaster ride because ABC News was “throwing a lot of stuff at the wall,” including a new 15-minute “WNT” webcast each mid-afternoon, new graphics and new music. “And there’ll be a new set soon,” the news executive said.

On Tuesday, while Ms. Vargas was doing the webcast “WNT,” a press conference about the mine explosion that trapped 13 men began in West Virginia.

“Elizabeth has to figure out how to get to a special report for the network, a special report for the webcast, and then the webcast has to be passed seamlessly to the webcast people, because we don’t simulcast special reports. It was an interesting experience,” Mr. Slavin said. “Someone characterized what we did [Tuesday] as the first news triple lutz.”

“We sure have moved the business forward in a substantial way, the implications of which I don’t think any of us really quite understand,” he said.