Fox Stations Aim to Replace Late-Night Syndicated Comedy With Local News (EXCLUSIVE)

jim-lokay-wttg-fox
Courtesy Fox Television Stations

Fox-owned stations have some news for viewers who like to stay up late.

Late-night couch potatoes who never cared for witty monologues from Jay Leno and David Letterman – or more recently, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert – have always had some respite. Since the Fox broadcast network abandoned many of its late-night aspirations after an ill-fated effort led by Chevy Chase ended in 1993, its stations have become home to syndicated comedies that air at 11:30 and have run the gamut from “Seinfeld” to “30 Rock.”

With so many recent comedies already available via on-demand services, however, the Fox stations see little humor in the situation. So, executives at Fox Television Stations Group, which comprises 28 stations that reach 37% of U.S. homes, intend to stop running the syndicated fare in favor of late-night shows crafted by their local-news operations.

“For years, the idea was you had to have ‘Seinfeld,’” to compete with late-night shows on rival stations, says Frank Cicha, senior vice president of programming for Fox TV Stations, in an interview. “Those days are done.”

Fox Stations’ decision is likely to jolt companies that have gotten rich off the fees regularly paid for syndicated series. In several large markets, Fox controls two stations – including in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte.  Syndicators have been under pressure for several years, says Michael Nathanson, an independent media-industry analyst. “This has been a major long running theme for us, as both cable and station groups drop acquired programming to add originals,” he says. “The industry pipeline is rather weak and the focus on serialized content has hurt, too.”

As contracts to run certain syndicated programs come due, says Cicha, Fox Stations intends to replace the comedies with programming that is more of the moment. “The only way these stations exist in the future is to be live day and date, to be immediate,” he says. There could be another reason for jettisoning the funny stuff. Stations typically share advertising revenue from such shows with the syndicators. Running another news program would allow the Fox stations to keep all the advertising they sell.

Snaring the rights to favorite TV comedies used to sway audiences, but with so many programs available on Hulu, Netflix, Apple iTunes and other on-demand venues, “that makes it less immediate,”  Cicha adds. “People can watch it whenever they want.” The stations might follow the late-night news with other shows that feature content that is fresh only once. Examples of such programming might include an episode of “TMZ” or “Page Six,” a new effort from Fox that plays off the famous gossip pages of The New York Post, a newspaper controlled by sister company News Corp.

In recent years, Fox has started late-night news shows at stations in Atlanta, San Francisco, Tampa, Washington DC, and, in recent weeks, Houston. Audiences between the ages of 25 and 54 have increased or stayed flat in the timeslot at the stations where the late-news shows air, according to Nielsen data.

Comedy reruns have proved instrumental at outlets like Time Warner’s TBS, where repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” feed audiences into shows like “Conan” or “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”  Some of the appeal of FXX, a sister cable network operated by Fox Stations’ parent 21st Century Fox, hinges on its rights to air episodes of “The Simpsons” ad infinitum.

For local stations, however, the appeal of such stuff has dimmed, says Cicha. “They are not exclusive to syndication anymore, and that’s what made them special back in the day,” he explains.

Fox stations already air local news at 10 p.m., and sometimes all the way through until 11:30 p.m. With that in mind, executives realized the news just before midnight required a different tone. At Washington’s WTTG, anchor Jim Lokay hosts “Final Five,” a spirited program in which he examines the topics in both national and local politics the news staffers believe are of most interest to local viewers. “Politics Gets Its @$# Kicked @ 11:30,” one recent promo for the show touted.

Lokay doesn’t sit behind a desk and doesn’t have a co-anchor. He got his training as a sports reporter in Boston, notes Patrick Paolini, general manager of WTTG, in an interview. “It’s the polar opposite of a regular newscast,” he says. “He’s putting up content from the day that we perceive to be the top stories, sound bites from various politicians,” Paolini adds. “He kind of takes the show where he wants to.”  If Fox Stations executives have their way, that will be several steps away from the humorous reruns that once proved so winning.

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  1. MaSoleil says:

    I live in a rural area with an over the air antennae that gives me 9 stations (12 when it’s raining!). With my schedule, tv time is usually between 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. I used to be able to catch syndicated shows like Two & a Half Men, Hot in Cleveland and Friends. Now, I’m stuck watching weird series type shows that look like they were shot with a home video camera, i.e., The Game. CBS did the same with their 4-6 p.m. slots. I used to be able to watch reruns of Friends, Big Bang Theory and The Middle. Now, I’m stuck with Harry Connick Jr. and Steve Harvey’s lame attempts at “talk” tv. Personally, I think it is a way for the cable companies to stop people from cutting the cord. Even if I choose to use Netflix or Hulu, the data caps make sure the cable company makes up any lost revenue.

  2. Matthew says:

    Local FOX O&O have been running Fox News Edge newscasts at 11 -1130 for years now. Its amazing that the more channels there are, the less there is to watch.

  3. Mike Jones says:

    Another dumb move by Fox to anger their affiliates. Affiliates make a good money with their syndication late night programming.

    • Prime says:

      It’s not going to affect the affiliates one bit. This is the fox o&o stations

    • Fred says:

      That’s not always true. Syndicated shows cost a ton of dough, and the fees keep increasing. Some syndicated shows are actually money losers for affiliates, with limited ad dollars not quite covering the fees. Despite that, some stations will buy them as loss-leaders to drive bigger audiences into their local newscasts (which doesn’t always work). To add a newscast is much cheaper. You use the same anchors that are already on staff for the nightly newscast…hire a producer, maybe a writer…but most of it can be done with existing staff by shifting work hours to cover the added newscast. And then you keep all the ad revenue. This has been done for years…it’s not new.

  4. John Henrehan says:

    For media mavens only: on weekdays, my old station (WTTG, Fox5, Washington, DC), is now airing TEN HOURS A DAY of live newscasts. Plus a live 30-minute newscast at 8:00 p.m. on co-owned Ch. 20.

    • Fred says:

      That was done in Denver 25 years ago. Roger Ogden figured that formula out in the early 90’s, and his station profited greatly from his genius.

  5. Mario500 says:

    “ ‘Politics Gets Its @$# Kicked @ 11:30,’ one recent promo for the show touted.”

    Ridiculous and unprofessional.

  6. Eric says:

    My local Fox O&O affiliate WAGA made the bold move last year to expand their late news till Midnight. Assuming that proved successful, I’m assuming other Fox O&O’s could extend their late (11PM) news till Midnight… looking at WTTG and WTVT, also in the eastern time zone.

    Not sure about the central, mountain, and Pacific time zones. KTVU would be the closest bet for the Pacific, expanding their new late news till Midnight. WNYW, WTXF, WJBK, WOFL, WJZY, and KTTV, not sure whether they have 11PM news as of yet. Central and mountain stations, like WFLD, KDFW, KTBC, KRIV, and KSAZ, I could easily see doing 9PM-Midnight, if not 9-11PM. Non O&O’s, like Tribune-owned Fox stations (sale to Sinclair pending, whether or not it gets approval) and other groups with Fox stations could be interesting.

    Another novel idea for Fox O&O’s is early evening news offering, and could see them doing 4-7:30PM, instead of the 5-6:30PM or 5-7PM, and could easily see WAGA, WTTG, and WTVT testing it. I’d imagine a few more major markets getting 4AM morning news soon enough.

  7. cowgirldiva says:

    SMART people are losing interest in anything FOX….!

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