TV stations ‘go local’ for survival

From San Francisco to Miami and from New York to L.A., the buzz word for the survival of independent TV stations in ever-crowded markets is: Go local.

“That has definitely been the buzz word for a lot of stations around the country,” says David Woodcock, general manager of KCAL, Los Angeles’ Channel 9. “If you look to the future and consider the idea of having 200 or 500 cable channels, what ever the number is, the question is: How do you stand out? For traditional local television stations, the best way to do it is to really have a lot of emphasis on local.”

For KCAL, that means local news, kids’ shows and specials. KCAL’s Prime 9 News, which debuted March 5, 1990, boasts of being the nation’s only local weeknight three-hour prime time block.

The station added another local half hour at 6.30 p.m. weeknights, to compete with the national network news programs, in June 1992.

With L.A.’s only hour of local TVnews at noon, KCAL now offers 24 1/2 hours of news each week, which ties it with Channel 7, the ABC-owned station, for the most hours of local news in L.A.

Meanwhile, KTLA and KTTV have targeted mornings for their heavy local news weight. “KTLA Morning News: The Early Edition,” premiered on June 21, 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., leading in to the station’s already established two-hour “KTLA Morning News.”

Also on June 21, KTTV introduced “Fox Morning News,” 6.a.m. to 7 a.m., and “Good Day L.A.,” 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. In this, the station was following the lead of other Fox affiliates around the country, including those in New York, San Francisco, Miami and Washington. Chicago and Houston Fox stations were set to follow.

The question, of course, is whether a station affiliated with Fox is really independent. Outside of major markets such as Los Angeles and New York, where there are six and seven VHF stations, respectively, many TV stations not owned or affiliated with ABC, CBS or NBC, have signed up with Fox for their prime time service.

“We do have a prime time network, but in the sense of a traditional ABC, CBS or NBC, no we’re not,” says Tom Capra, general manager of KTTV. “We’re a hybrid and we like it. We have to do our own mornings and daytimes.”

Capra agrees that the Los Angeles market is tough. “The competition is furious. This is now the only market in the United States that has two local morning news shows opposite each other and going absolutely toe to toe, with three network morning shows competing for the same audience,” Capra says. “That’s an incredible competition in that area. And at 10 p.m., there are four newscasts on, which is unheard of.” Naturally, Capra is confident that his new morning shows will give KTLA a run for their money. “I think there will be parity there between the two,” he says.

Not every station manager, however, believes that going local should mean just local news.

“Most of the time, when you look at what you call local programming in this market, when you say ‘Go Local,’ it’s essentially news,” observes Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP, L.A.

“Nobody is doing a really local viable talk show, or a local viable game show , or a local viable anything. What they’re basically doing is local viable news.”

KCOP, which bills itself as “the very independent station,” is taking another approach. “We have, to some degree, tended to go a different way,” Feldman says. “We do a lot of local programming but not all of it is news.”

KCOP carries 40 Los Angeles Clippers basketball games each season, and for several years has presented coverage of the Los Angeles Marathon, the holiday season Doo Dah Parade and “Live from the Hollywood Bowl,” which Feldman claims is “the only classical music concert on commercial TV,” each September.

“We’ve done local fights, local high-school football games,” Feldman says. On Aug. 5 the station will carry its third “The Best of L.A.” show, with Los Angeles Magazine, and on Aug. 27 it has a live boxingmatch, with Oscar de la Hoya.

“That’s not to say we are not looking for more local things to do,” says Feldman. “But we don’t necessarily believe that just doing another news cast is the best way to go.”

Although Feldman says KCOP will probably add another newscast in another daypart at some point either late this year or early next year, he adds, “Local is great but you’ve got to find another way to do it other than news. We do it in sports and special events as well as news.”

Strategies for survival, let alone success, in a highly competitive market, are sometimes forced on stations. “To some extent going local is a strategy born out of necessity being the mother of invention,” Feldman says.

He notes that network affiliates in the past have always had the most local news and one of the reasons was that bidding for syndicated product against independents became too expensive for them. They realized that the only way to amortize the cost of paying their anchors and for their equipment was to increase the amount of hours they were on the air.

“KCAL, five years ago, looked at where they were in prime time and they were a stand-alone station with no brethren, so their buying power was limited,” Feldman says. “They had no movies and the only thing they could come up with was to do a three-hour newscast.”

In Miami, WSVN was for more than 20 years an NBC affiliate, but four years ago, NBC purchased another Miami station and WSVN became independent, signing on with Fox. The station carries seven hours of news a day.

“We believe in developing your own local franchise and that’s the strength you have as a local television station,” says Robert Leider, WSVN general manager. “We are ahead of the game in regards to that because we realized it basically four years ago. That’s when we started doing a heavier concentration of news than any other television station in the country.”

WSVN originated local morning news and Leider says it has been enormously successful both financially and with regard to ratings.

In New York, WWOR carries a local talk show, “The Richard Bey Show” each weekday at 11 a.m. and has a one-hour local news broadcast at 10 p.m. WWOR’s local emphasis is on sports. The station carries 80-plus New York Mets games and last year carried 10 New Jersey Nets games, with more planned for next season.

“If you look at our news, you’ll see that it’s very different in the way it’s formatted compared to anybody else’s,” declares KCOP’s Rick Feldman. “It’s much more hard-news, much more positive. We take much more time to tell stories. We do a lot less ambulance chasing, bullets, gore and murders.”

No one’s about to deny the need for rough-and-tumble local news coverage, however. “Breaking news is certainly part of the coverage mandate but it would be fair to say that that’s not all we do, and it’s not the sole determinate of our newscast,” says Bob Henry. “Los Angeles has gone through a fairly traumatic time; it still has difficulties, the economy has been bad, crime is on the rise, and you can’t stick your head in a hole and ignore that.”

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