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KDKA follows national trend with 4 p.m. news

Thursday, July 11, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Local news at 4 p.m. is new for Pittsburgh, but it's not new to the TV industry.

KDKA plans to add a 4 p.m. newscast beginning July 22 anchored by Patrice King Brown and Stacy Smith, but in other markets, an early early news has long been a staple.

KCNC, the CBS-owned and -operated station in Denver, added a 4 p.m. "First News" broadcast in spring 1982 when it was still General Electric-owned NBC affiliate KOA-TV. Since then, a rival station added a newscast in the same time slot. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" beat them both during May sweeps, but the 4 p.m. newscasts were competitive as KCNC eked out a win.

Angie Kucharski, KCNC news director for the past three years, said a 4 p.m. newscast makes sense for a station with a strong news operation.

"It allows you to extend the news image and be available for viewers at a time when it's more convenient for them to get the news," she said. "Also, lead-ins to newscasts are so critical, and by creating your own broadcast you are better positioned to control what sets up the rest of your news block."

Kucharski said a 4 p.m. newscast must move viewers from afternoon programming to the evening news by blending hard news with lifestyle news, such as consumer and health reports.

That's pretty much a model for what sister station KDKA has planned.

"You gear it primarily toward women. That's the bulk of your audience there. It's an older audience, over 35, that is available at that time," said KDKA news director Al Blinke. "We'll probably have a little more health news in there, but there is a significant male audience that we don't want to alienate or ignore."

Blinke said Pittsburgh is ripe for a 4 p.m. newscast. "This is a news-hungry town and it's sort of a shift town, not steel worker shift work but medical shifts, and you have a tremendous number of people home at that time."

The arrival of KD's 4 p.m. news comes in a year when the station has seen its on-air staff contract. Meteorologist Bob Kudzma was approached about retiring and took the company's offer, sportscaster Paul Alexander has moved over to KDKA-AM and Washington County bureau reporter Andy Briggs will be let go when his contract expires next month.

Blinke said at least one position will be added -- a producer dedicated to the 4 p.m. newscast -- and there may be additional technicians hired to work behind the scenes, but there are no plans to add an on-air reporter. He downplayed concern that the 4 p.m. news might draw viewers away from the 5 or 6 p.m. broadcasts or that adding another hour of news without significant additional staffing would negatively affect the station's overall news product.

"I wouldn't say it's doing more with less, I'd say it's learning new ways to do things," Blinke said. "We have a pretty large staff of people who work really hard, and I think we're going to put the show on the air and see how it goes and adjust as we need to."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, oversees annual surveys on local TV news quality. He said KDKA's plans are similar to what other stations are doing.

"More stations around the country are being asked to do more news with fewer resources," Rosenstiel said. "Overall, almost everyone's being asked to do more with less or more with the same, stretching the same resources thinner."

A survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism last year found that 61 percent of stations responding added news programming and 38 percent of those had a lower budget than in the year before. About 68 percent of stations that added news had to reduce their budgets over the course of the year because of changes in revenue projections.

"As stations start to thin the product by making the same people produce more stuff, they will lose audience," Rosenstiel said. "Viewers will notice it. They may not know they're noticing it, but they will just drift away from that station.

"It's an easy way to increase cumulative audience, but what it's really doing is weakening the news division. They're producing a cheaper product but they're producing more of it. It's like trying to make more money by producing a smaller Snickers bar."

News directors at other Pittsburgh stations said they have no plan to expand into the 4 p.m. hour.

"I don't see anyone else in this market going down that road," said WTAE's Bob Longo. "There's no big demand for news at 4. They clearly had no programming to put there and they're doing this as a cost-saving measure. It's cheaper to produce a newscast than to buy quality programs like 'Oprah' to put in there."

WPXI news director Pat Maday is also skeptical about how a newscast will fare in that time slot.

"They're third in the time period now and I don't think changing the programming is going to solve the problems they have," Maday said. "Despite what you hear from Gateway Center, many stations around the country that have delved into the 4-to-5 p.m. time period are now starting to stop doing news at that time."

Matt Friedman, a former TV news producer who now works for a public relations firm in Detroit, said the No. 3 station in Detroit tried a 4 p.m. newscast in the early '90s.

"It wasn't that successful," he said. "They couldn't drive people away from 'Oprah.' I think we may see more [4 p.m. newscasts] now though because syndicated programming for 5 p.m. news lead-ins is almost dried up."

WKBW, the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, will debut a 4 p.m. newscast in September. News director Bob Yuna said six people will be hired, including a reporter and anchor/reporter, to work on the broadcast.

Like KDKA's new news, WKBW's added broadcast will replace "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." That once-hot talk show saw its ratings cool in recent years, and KDKA executives blamed it for lower ratings for KDKA routinely coming in third place at 5 p.m. Aside from "Dr. Phil," which will air mornings on WTAE, there are no syndicated programs in the pipeline for fall that appear to have much ratings potential.

Susana Schuler, vice president and corporate news director for Nexstar Broadcasting Group, said news at 4 p.m. makes sense for stations without popular syndicated programming.

"If you don't have 'Oprah' and if you don't have 'Dr. Phil' and if you don't have strong afternoon syndicated show, but you have a strong news product, it's almost a no-brainer," Schuler said. "You can save on syndication costs and use that money to hire staff to do that show and you make money because you control all the [commercial] inventory" selling all the ads locally and keeping the profits instead of sharing ad time with a syndicator.

While KDKA experiments at 4 p.m., the future of news expansion may be at the other end of the evening news block, Friedman said. Detroit station WXYZ started a 7 p.m. newscast after Sept. 11 and has kept it on the air.

"It often beats syndicated programming," Friedman said, chalking its success up to people getting home later from work. "For a lunch bucket kind of market there's a whole bunch of people stuck on freeways during the 5 and 6 p.m. news."

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