In New Newsroom Math, Does 7 Equal 6?

Growing number of stations see upside in newscasts during the post-dinner, pre-prime hour

Why This Matters

Less reliant on acquired programming, stations are filling schedules with news. But there’s risk in changing any daypart.

When Scripps cancelled game show Let’s Ask America earlier this year, Jeff Brogan, VP and general manager of WCPO 9 Cincinnati, started looking for things to fill the 7-7:30 p.m. weeknight time slot.

Research pointed to an available audience working longer hours and coming home later, dealing with kids’ sports practices and dinner preparation, but then eventually hungry for local TV news. The ABC affiliate had also produced newscasts at that time before—weather coverage, special reports—which Brogan says did well.

“What’s going to set up the station in the best way to have success in ratings? No-brainer: It’s news, because of the available audience and [chance to] extend our brand into a part of the day that has no competition,” Brogan says. “The 7 p.m. hour is when people are winding down and looking for options.”

WCPO’s 9 On Your Side at 7 p.m. launched Sept. 14. WWSB Sarasota, Fla., also premiered a 7 p.m. newscast on the same night, while WMBF Myrtle Beach (S.C.)’s 7 p.m. newscast began on Aug. 31.

The stations all cite the opportunity to reach an underserved audience, but all have different circumstances. And given the spotty track record of that slot over time, success is hardly certain.

Bob Papper, author of the annual RTDNA/Hofstra University survey, says there have been efforts to launch 7 p.m. newscasts for decades, but it’s never been a popular time. “There have been quite a few stations that have tried it, not a ton that have kept it going,” he says. “I suspect that a lot of stations have given up on the 7 o’clock news long before the audience was even aware it was going on.”

Early mornings or late afternoons are usually more popular expansion windows than 7 p.m. Almost one-third of stations added a newscast in the last year, Papper says, though the overall amount of news has leveled off in recent years to an average of 5.3 hours on a station that airs newscasts. On the list of all time slots, 7 p.m. was tied for seventh. But given the cost savings compared with acquiring entertainment fare, and the fact that news content generates half of an average station’s revenue, it’s a gamble many stations are willing to take.

WWSB Sarasota, one of two ABC affiliates in the duplicated Tampa, Fla., market (DMA No. 13), primarily serves the relatively affluent and well-educated Sarasota and Manatee Counties. Although that makes acquiring syndicated programming more of a challenge, it also gives the Calkins Media-owned station a “more clearly defined demographic,” an advantage when it comes to local news, says news director Steve Sabato.

After an initial block of quick-hit local stories, a second segment offers a three-to-five-minute taped package on a specific issue or topic, followed by a six-minute roundtable discussion. “Secondary audiences, loyalists, people who want a deeper dive…we think that’s going to differentiate this from another 30-minute newscast,” Sabato says. “These are people who have an appetite for intelligent, issue-oriented programming.”

The biggest viewership-driver for Raycom’s WMBF Myrtle Beach (DMA No. 102) is changing weather forecasts, says VP and general manager Sarah Miles. Being in a coastal area with the threat of hurricanes and tropical storms, the NBC affiliate wanted to provide up-to-the minute conditions and forecasts. A 7 p.m. newscast “gives [viewers] time to tune into news that wasn’t there for them before,” Miles says. “The reporters are able to dig in a little bit more, find more information.”

In Cincinnati (DMA No. 36), depth is also a goal. Plus, Brogan says evening viewers “are a little more laid back” and therefore “able to consume that depth and perspective in a better way compared to 5 p.m. or in the morning.”

Steve Schwaid, VP of digital strategy at consulting firm CJ&N, recalls adding 7 p.m. newscasts when he was senior VP of news and programming for NBCUniversal TV’s owned-and-operated stations in markets including New York and L.A. It turned out that viewers preferred entertainment programming. After checking news online and on their car radios, they wanted to decompress at that hour. “Is there a market for a 7 p.m. newscast? Sure. A big market? Not that we have seen,” Schwaid says.

Bill Hague, Frank N. Magid Associates executive VP, cautions stations to pay heed to potential viewer and newsroom fatigue at 7 p.m. He asks a previously unthinkable rhetorical question: “When is there too much news?”