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Ratings for 10 p.m. news here lag natonlal averages

Thursday, July 11, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

For viewers prone to falling asleep in front of the televisions or for those who have to be up early for work, the advent of the "early" late newscast in Pittsburgh should have been a boon.

Alby Oxenreiter, left, Jay Harris, Sheila Hyland and Matt Morano team up for the "Fox 53 Ten O'Clock News," the station's only newscast. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)


KDKA follows national trend with
4 p.m. news


And while for some it clearly has, WPGH's single daily newscast appears to have reached a ratings plateau at the same time it has greater competition.

WPGH's 10 p.m. newscast marked its five-year anniversary in January and WNPA's KDKA-produced 10 p.m. news turns 1 in August. PCNC, cable sibling of WPXI, also has a 10 p.m. report, but it rates a distant third behind the competition on broadcast channels.

Compared with similarly sized markets, Pittsburgh's 10 p.m. newscasts get lower-than-average ratings. On first glance, that seems odd. Pittsburgh is a good news town; most newscasts on the three standbys -- KDKA, WPXI, WTAE -- perform better here than newscasts in other markets. And in a market with one of the largest elderly populations, it would stand to reason that all newscasts would benefit because older people tend to watch more TV news.

But it cuts both ways. Older viewers watch more TV news, but they're less likely to watch news on a station and in a time slot that's perceived as new.

"There's a tremendous habit for news at 6 and 11 p.m.," said WPGH news director John Poister. "One of the things we have to break through is to get people to remember us, to get us to be part of their habit of viewing. In a market where the next youngest newscast is Channel 4, which started in 1958, we're newborns."

WNPA's newscast, produced by the staff of KDKA, faces some of the same challenges. KDKA news director Al Blinke said that when the 10 p.m. news concept first started on independent stations in the '70s and '80s, it was easier to get noticed.

"Years ago you didn't have the cable choices; you didn't have the local news choices," he said. "You could put it on and people would just find it. It's different today."

Poister and Blinke cited other complicating factors, including lead-in, cable penetration and location on the cable lineup.

 
 

"Early" late news in
May '02

Market

RankStationRating/
Share
Cleveland/
Akron
17
WJW (Fox)9.5/15
WUAB (UPN)3.1/5
Denver *
18
KDVR (Fox)4.2/7
KWGN (WB)2.7/4
Sacramento
19
KOVR (CBS)5.6/9
KQCA (WB)4.0/6
KTXL (Fox)3.3/6
Orlando
20
WOFL (Fox)3.8/6
WKCF (WB)3.6/5
WRDQ1.1/2
Pittsburgh
21
WPGH (Fox)3.5/5
WNPA (UPN)1.3/2
PCNC (cable)1/1
St. Louis *
22
KTVI (Fox)7/10
KPLR (WB)4/5
Portland
23
KPTV (UPN)4.6/9
KPDX (Fox)2.7/5
* In these markets the "early" late news airs at 9 p.m. (prime time is 7 to 10 p.m.).
SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research

   
 

Both Pittsburgh's Fox and UPN stations tend to underperform in prime time compared to the national averages, another symptom of an older market less likely to try new channels.

"The biggest thing is just getting a prime-time lineup that brings people in," Poister said. "We just have to get people used to tuning to Fox as they make their prime-time choice, just as they tune to ABC, CBS and NBC. It's a little tougher here."

Blinke also cited lead-in as a challenge.

"There are days [the news] performs 800 percent better than the lead-in," he said, acknowledging how low-rated some UPN prime-time programming is. "I think that's pretty good."

Poister also points to the cable penetration rate in the Pittsburgh market -- about 80 percent of homes subscribe to cable or satellite service -- as a factor.

"We faced an 80- to 100-channel universe for a little while longer than some other markets," he said. "More choices thin the pie out a little bit."

For WNPA, Blinke pointed to reception problems, a lack of widespread cable carriage and location on cable lineups for contributing to the newscast's slow ratings growth.

"In a perfect world, if we were playing on equal ground, I think our numbers would be higher," Blinke said. "It would get a higher number if it had better cable positioning."

In non-rebuilt sections of the city of Pittsburgh, WNPA is the only full-power local station relegated to only the "B" side of AT&T's cable lineup.

"If you're sitting at home flipping through channels, you have to physically get up, walk to the TV and switch from the A side to the B side to put us on."

The future of 10 p.m. newscasts is clouded by at least a few question marks. Last month, The WB affiliate in Portland, Maine, scuttled its decade-old 10 p.m. newscast, and Sinclair, corporate parent of WPGH, has shut down news operations in several markets.

Steve Marks, Sinclair's vice president/regional director over WPGH, said there are no plans to end news on WPGH.

"Pittsburgh is obviously a very important market for us, it's a very competitive market, and in order to compete favorably, we believe we have to be in the news business," Marks said in a phone interview from his office in Tampa, Fla. He travels to Pittsburgh about once every five weeks.

Having a news operation often makes smart business sense because it can drive particular advertisers and their money to a station. Desiree Hill, a television consultant for The Idea Works! consortium based near Dallas, said political campaigns can help a TV station's bottom line, but only if it has a newscast.

"They don't want to be in a sitcom airing on a Fox affiliate," Hill said. "They want to reach the kind of person who will watch a newscast, and that person is going to be more likely to vote. If sitcom reruns are the only kind of product you have, you might lose out."

Marks said Sinclair stations had an insurmountable competitive disadvantage in markets where Sinclair scuttled its news operations.

KDKA-TV anchors Jennifer Antkowiak and Ken Rice take a break during a broadcast of WNPA's 10 p.m. newscast. The earlier newscast, which turns a year old next month, is produced by KDKA. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

"We're not a nonprofit organization, and we have an obligation to shareholders to make money for them," he said. "We're not in business to be losing money, and we did not see a light at the end of the tunnel in those markets. Instead of agonizing, I think we made a very smart decision."

Prior to its merger with CBS, Viacom had a history in the late '90s of starting and shuttering 10 p.m. newscasts on UPN stations. With synergy that allows one Viacom station to produce news for another -- as KDKA does for WNPA -- producing an additional local newscast for the UPN station makes more financial sense.

The wrong premise

But to hook viewers, a newscast has to be more than a station cash cow.

Matt Friedman, marketing vice president at Detroit's Marx Layne Public Relations, was a TV news producer in the mid-'90s, when he helped Orlando, Fla., station WKCF turn around its 10 p.m. news, which was a ratings also-ran. He said competition from prime-time series is an obstacle for 10 p.m. newscasts. Another problem: Stations such as WPGH don't have a newscast earlier in the day, which limits opportunities to promote the 10 p.m. news.

"Where 10 o'clock newscasts struggled in the past is, they focused exclusively on a premise that has not worked, which is that we're on early, so people who want to go to bed early are gonna watch us," he said.

For a station such as WNPA, which broadcasts what's essentially another KDKA news program, Friedman said the 10 p.m. show has to be distinct.

"You have to make it a real newscast, not just a repackaged and reformatted version of what was on earlier in the day," he said. "When I got to Orlando, they were often taking packages right out of the 5 and 6 p.m. news and putting [them] on as the lead story."

There's also the challenge of putting together a 10 and an 11 p.m. newscast almost simultaneously. Blinke said most everyone who works on the WNPA 10 p.m. news also works on KDKA's 11 p.m. newscast (or worked on the early evening newscasts), although the 10 p.m. news has a producer dedicated to it.

The presence of two main anchors from KDKA on WNPA should make clear the importance of the 10 p.m. news, but, he said, it is different from KDKA's news programs.

"The 10, quite frankly, doesn't have all the whistles and bells of the 11 o'clock show. We don't short-shrift the 10 -- it gets all the stories and resources it needs -- but if we have to spend the extra time making a map or graphic, we'll spend that time for the 11 o'clock show," Blinke said, noting the UPN show has different graphics from KDKA. "If it suffers anywhere, that's where it suffers."

Blinke said his station doesn't hold breaking news stories for the 11 p.m. newscast, and the UPN prime-time lead-in can influence which stories air on WNPA just as the CBS lead-in naturally lends some stories to KDKA at 11.

"Thursday night is 'Smackdown!' night, and whether you like it or not, it's one of the highest-rated shows on UPN," Blinke said. "And we have an audience out there of teen-agers to 30-year-olds. So when we do teases in our 9 o'clock hour, we may try to skew a story that might get those people in there. For instance, when Jesse Ventura announced he wasn't going to run for governor, that's a story we used to tease the 10 o'clock news because it's both wrestlers."

Looking for growth at WPGH

At WPGH, they're able to breathe a sigh of relief. WNPA's newscast has been on a year, but it doesn't appear to have stolen away WPGH's audience. Still, ratings for WPGH's news hour have stalled.

"The newscast has to keep growing," Poister said, "and one of the things that has to happen is the various other elements on the station have to grow, too. If you look at the station's ratings as a whole, they've plateaued. Our assignment now is to draw more people into the station as a whole. If we can do that and if ratings for the early evening programs and prime time go up, that translates to [better] news ratings."

Poister's aim for the newscast is to give a snapshot of the day's news for viewers who don't see an early evening newscast. In addition, the station added a "Cover Story" segment in recent months. These stories -- currently airing twice a week, with the possibility of expanding to a third night later this year -- allow reporters more time to put the story together.

"It's an opportunity for us to kind of break out a little bit and show we can get into issues," Poister said. "It's tough when you have just one newscast a day. There are a lot of very good stories out there we've passed by in former days because we just didn't have a venue to do them or we didn't have the time."

Having one newscast does allow WPGH to focus its resources on the 10 p.m. news alone, but, Poister said, expanding news into other hours would help the station develop more credibility as a news-gathering organization.

"Right now we fulfill the needs of people in a certain niche, but I think in order for us to move to the next level, we're going to have to expand."

Sinclair's Marks said it's a possibility, but nothing is in the works.

"In all our markets, we look for opportunities that afford us more profitability and expand our income in the marketplace," he said. "In Pittsburgh, we continue to grow at 10. We still view that newscast as one that has room to grow. We'd like it to continue to reach its potential before we go into other areas."

The 10 p.m. news battle, quiet as it may be compared to the Big Three stations' jockeying for No. 1, will continue.

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