Viacom is not the first TV broadcaster to drop local news after calculating that it couldn't compete. But it is certainly the most prominent. Last week, Viacom decided to quit offering original newcasts on its two stations in Detroit, the nation's 10th-largest market.
Detroit CBS station WWJ-TV will drop its single half-hour of local news. Duopoly partner and UPN affiliate WKBD(TV) will continue with an hour-long news—but one produced by Scripps-owned WXYZ-TV under a revenue-sharing arrangement.
The moves mean job loss for most of the 70 people currently employed at the Viacom newsroom, but some may find full- and part-time work at WXYZ-TV.
The WKBD newscast won't compete with WXYZ-TV's late news at 11; the considerable resources of WXYZ-TV will make it more competitive with the third local-news power, Fox-owned WJBK(TV), at 10 p.m.
WXYZ-TV News Director Bill Carey acknowledged that some of his 11 p.m. viewers "will be pleased that we're offering news now at 10." Overall, he said, the deal gives WXYZ-TV "another hour to showcase our news product. The newcasts on WKBD and WXYZ will not be identical: "There will be different people and different stories."
Detroit has been a difficult market for CBS for years. A decades-long affiliation with WJBK ended in 1994, when its owners switched it to Fox. To maintain a Detroit presence, CBS purchased the small independent at Channel 62, then WGPR-TV.
For years, the renamed WWJ-TV was the only CBS-owned station without news. Ironically, WKBD was about the last full news department in the Paramount station group, which killed off several newscasts before the Paramount and CBS groups merged to form, among others, Viacom's Detroit duopoly. With an existing news department to build on, WWJ-TV added a late newscast as well as staff and equipment beginning in February 2001. But neither newscast has been competitive.
"The competitive news landscape of the Detroit market is unique in that it presents us the kind of challenges we do not face in other markets," said Fred Reynolds, president, Viacom Television Stations Group.
"In killing off a newscast," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "what a station or company is saying is that they don't view the production of news as purely a public obligation. They have to do news to a certain profit level. Today, we've got more outlets chasing a relatively static or shrinking audience; I suspect we'll see a great deal" of dropped newscasts.
Ball State University telecommunications professor Bob Papper, who monitors local news for the Radio-Television News Directors Association, does not think eliminating local news is a trend. "While eight or nine have dropped news in the past two years, more than 16 stations have added new news departments, typically small network affiliates or Fox stations that never had news before."