Some TV stations are finding that the way to improve local news ratings is to move their afternoon newscasts.
WPLG-TV, the Post-Newsweek ABC affiliate in Miami, is the latest station to opt out of crowded local news races in the afternoon in favor of proven, news-compatible syndicated material to boost the lead-in to the remaining local newscast.
Some of these stations also have created a half-hour of local news at 7 p.m., where it is a pure counter-programming play and can aspire to higher prime-access advertising prices than sponsors are willing to pay in the afternoon.
In September, WPLG VP and general manager Dave Boylan put “Dr. Phil” on at 5 p.m. weekdays. He replaced a long-running local newscast that had been competing with three other English-language newscasts in 2005.
The results were arresting: In the November sweeps ratings book, “Dr. Phil” improved the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. timeslot household performance by 53 percent year over year.
The ratings momentum carried into the newscast. With “Dr. Phil” as a lead-in, WPLG’s faster-paced 6 p.m. local news half-hour picked up an additional 2.5 rating points and vaulted from fourth place in 2005 to a strong No. 1 in November 2006. Even taking into account the higher costs of running “Dr. Phil” at 5 p.m. rather than 4 p.m., Mr. Boylan said the strategy is paying off.
“It’s an absolute home run,” he said.
The strategy was two years in the making and was accomplished without loss of news programming. WPLG has added a half-hour of weekday local news in the early morning and at midday, and now produces 61/2 hours of local news on weekend mornings.
Of the three Gannett-owned stations that made similar weekday switches, NBC affiliates WKYC-TV in Cleveland and WXIA-TV in Atlanta created half-hour local newscasts to run at 7 p.m. weeknights, on the other side of their networks’ flagship newscasts.
WKYC launched its 7 p.m. newscast some six years ago to replace the late “Hard Copy,” which was having an increasingly difficult time with advertisers because of its tabloid content.
WKYC President and General Manager Brooke Spectorsky, thinking like the alumnus of independent TV that he is, was comfortable with the risks in programming local news against entertainment programming.
“It took us about three years to build it up and for people to find us,” he said. Now WKYC’s newscast finishes first in the half-hour, or second to “Wheel of Fortune.”
The station’s 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. newscast- which was launched in the mid-1990s when there were two older and stronger newscasts well established-was replaced by “Dr. Phil” in 2002.
Again, even though some local critics devoted ink to the switch, Mr. Spectorsky remained sanguine and confident. While conventional wisdom holds that there is no better lead-in to news than news, the station executive observed that “that’s making the assumption that something is going on.”
Lacking big news, however, viewers of 5 p.m. newscasts seldom stick through the 6 p.m. newscasts, on which a different anchor-desk set reads rehashes of earlier news stories.
“Five o’clock shows are becoming more difficult,” Gannett Broadcasting President and CEO Roger Ogden said.
Among the pressures that are making these more perilous times for 5 p.m. newscasts are work-related changes that have commuters arriving home later.
Ratings for 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. at WKYC quickly jumped some 20 percent after the lineup changes, Mr. Spectorsky said.
Revenue increases followed. Mr. Spectorsky conceded that it’s still a challenge to convince advertisers that a ratings point in local news in prime access is worth as much as a ratings point in syndicated entertainment programming.
At Gannett’s CBS-affiliated WTSP-TV in Tampa, Fla., the changes involved sandwiching a 5 p.m. broadcast of “Dr. Phil” with local news at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. in 2003.
“It improved 5 o’clock dramatically,” WTSP President and General Manager Sam Rosenwasser said. “At 4 o’clock we’re doing better than we think we would have with a syndicated program.”
One built-in plus for the earlier newscast is that it becomes an information source during the time of day when potentially dangerous summer thunderstorms brew in Florida.
Mr. Rosenwasser said the improved performances-starting with a 36 percent increase in audience share from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.-have produced revenue increases in all three of the time slots involved.
Mr. Rosenwasser’s advice to others considering similar gambles: “You need to be prepared to make a wish and to be patient.”
There’s also the unavoidable fact that such changes would likely not work without a show that has the audience bulk and news-friendly demographic makeup and content of “Dr. Phil.”
Also unavoidable: the increased license fee for “Dr. Phil” if a station runs it at 5 p.m. instead of 4 p.m.
Mr. Boylan made unsolicited bids in 2004 for “Dr. Phil” when in the Miami market the King World Productions hit was running on WFOR-TV and for “Judge Judy,” a Paramount Domestic show then running on WSVN-TV.
Ask Mr. Boylan how deep into his station’s pockets he had dig for “Dr. Phil,” and he says wryly, but comfortably, that King World President and CEO Roger King “is living very nicely and so is Dr. Phil.”