Company plots makeover for weak stations

Tribune Co. exec Lee Abrams is making good on his promise to blow up the traditional TV news playbook.

Tribune Broadcasting is gearing up for the rollout of a radical, anchor-free overhaul of its local newscasts in some markets. The first market that will unveil the template dubbed “NewsFix” will be Houston, which is tentatively targeting an October launch.

Tribune execs stressed that NewsFix is an experiment in markets where stations are struggling with traditional newscasts and have little to lose by taking a leap into uncharted journo waters.

There are no plans to implement the format in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, where Tribune’s newscasts are competitive and and the stations have long-established newsgathering operations.

A prototype for the NewsFix format was shown to staffers at Tribune’s CW affiliate KIAH-TV Houston on Wednesday, to mixed reviews.

The prototype, produced with nationally and New York-oriented stories, plays as if the viewer were surfing the Internet, with voice-over narration of a rapid-fire series of pre-taped stories, vidclips and images. In addition to jettisoning the anchor desk, there are no traditional reports from on-air correspondents, though Tribune execs said the format was flexible to allow for live news coverage if warranted.

The script also represents a major departure from news conventions with a conversational style that takes an irreverent, at times even snarky, tone in describing the details of news stories, augmented with soundtrack music and on-screen graphics and sound effects. There’s a commentary segment that seems designed for user-generated video, and there are cut-ins for informational segments delivered by local officials and personalities.

“We’re trying to get away from Barbie and Ken sitting behind a desk chit-chatting with each other with their nice teeth,” said Abrams, who developed NewsFix in his role as Tribune’s senior veep and chief innovations officer.

Abrams emphasized that the NewsFix push is not driven by cost-cutting concerns but by the desire to shake up what he sees as an ossified format for stations that don’t have a strong history in local news. KIAH’s 9 p.m. newscast at times has drawn as few as 12,000 viewers — miniscule in a market that encompasses about 2 million viewers.

Still, the shift will clearly impact the station’s on-air reporters and anchors. Tribune execs are in the process of sorting out those contracts. Some on-air talent may be asked to stay on but in different capacities. Some reporters are likely to continue with the news department but work within the video-verite NewsFix format rather than doing traditional standup reports.

The push for NewsFix comes as most of Tribune’s 23 TV stations are enjoying strong year-to-year growth in ratings in key time periods and revenue gains as the local advertising market recovers after being hammered for the past two years by the recession. Tribune’s stations are on track to generate more than $1 billion in operating revenue for 2010, which will mark the first time since 2007 that the group has hit the $1 billion mark. For the year to date, revenue gains are pacing in the “mid-teens” over the same period in 2009, with third quarter sales pacing higher still, a Tribune spokesman said.

Cabler WGN America is in the midst of a programming overhaul that came just in time to capitalize on the ad recovery. The channel, which is investing heavily in off-net comedies such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Entourage” and “How I Met Your Mother,” garnered an estimated $50 million-$60 million in upfront ad bookings, a massive increase over its take in recent years. The channel is on track to post its most profitable year ever.

The stations and WGN America are Tribune’s brightest stars as the company continues to wend its way through a complex bankruptcy proceeding. The reorg has been delayed by intense wrangling with creditors and lenders, and revelations of questionable actions by current and past Tribune management related to the 2007 buyout of the company led by its contempo chairman Sam Zell, a Chi real estate mogul. That deal, structured as an employee stock ownership plan, left Tribune saddled with $13 billion in debt, forcing the bankruptcy filing in December 2008. Despite the many twists and turns in the proceedings, Tribune still expects to emerge from Chapter 11 by year’s end, a spokesman said.

Tribune execs clearly see the TV assets as the company’s best hope for driving a post-bankruptcy turnaround — hence the push to upgrade and reinvent programming. Tribune earlier this week announced plans for a daytime yakker hosted by Cincinnati radio personality Bill Cunningham that will air across its stations this fall, and it is in talks with syndicators to distrib the show in other markets.

“We see Bill Cunningham as a complement to our existing daytime shows,” said Sean Compton, Tribune Broadcasting’s prexy of programming. “We want to get into that (daytime programming) business and do some of it ourselves.”

Local news is typically a big profit center for stations, which is why Abrams has devoted so much time to devising a new strategy for the group’s under-performing stations.

“We’re very frustrated with the stations that aren’t doing great with news,” Abrams said. “We spent several months looking at every imaginable TV newscast, and we found so many elements that just need to be re-thought. For a station that’s not doing well up against established traditional competition, it was time to do something radical, something dramatic. The incremental changes they’ve been making were so vague they didn’t make any difference.”

Reaction to the screening that Abrams held at KIAH ranged from positive to deep skepticism of the practicality of producing the largely pre-taped program on a daily basis.

“How do you drop in a breaking story? How do you drop something if you’re going over?” said one staffer. “It’s a big idea but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought about the mechanisms needed to make this work on the ground.”

KIAH is in the midst of looking for an exec producer to spearhead the production team for NewsFix format. The station has been without a news director for the past several months, and the plan is to have the NewsFix exec producer fill that role.

The job requirements, according to Tribune’s official notice, call for a candidate “who knows that most local TV news sucks and wants to do something about it” and a person who is “in sync with the pulse of the streets, not the PC journalism world.”

There’s little doubt that NewsFix will be a challenging sell at the outset to some traditional advertisers — an issue that was raised by some after Wednesday’s screening, according to station insiders. Moreover, the launch will require a mega marketing campaign to draw nontraditional news viewers to a station that has struggled to attract news viewers of any kind.

Roger Bare, KIAH veep and g.m., said he had “no concerns” about the editorial or commercial viability of NewsFix.

“If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Bare said. “With this level of change there is going to be some anxiety, but there was also a lot of positive feedback (from the screening) that came from all departments in the building.”

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