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

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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