Fox Stations Stay Up Later

WAGA, WOFL add 11 p.m. newscasts
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Atlanta viewers who tune into WAGA at 11 p.m. next week will see a far slicker player than Kelso, Fez and the rest of the scruffy slacker gang from That '70s Show, which has long aired in that slot. That's because the Fox-owned station is introducing Fox 5 News Edge at 11, anchored by former WSVN Miami veteran Tom Haynes.

The same 11 o'clock debut is happening at WOFL Orlando, which kicked off Fox 35 News at 11:00 this week.

Both stations are keeping their hour-long 10 p.m. newscasts in place, offering viewers a straight 90 minutes of late news. “We've determined that localism is the future for TV stations,” says WAGA VP/General Manager Gene McHugh, “and there's no more emphatic statement to make about that than adding more local news.”

Stations in all corners of the country are boosting local news production. As WAGA and WOFL enter the late-night game, it brings the total to 14 Fox-owned stations that offer a combined 90 minutes of late news. The new programs boost WAGA's weekly news hours to 43 and WOFL's to 40—up from the 16 the Florida station ran when VP/General Manager Stan Knott joined 5½ years ago.

WAGA and WOFL promise high-energy newscasts offering ample interactive opportunities, such as viewer emails. Both will feature lone main anchors. WOFL will employ an “11 at 11” format—the first 11 minutes showing the day's big stories commercial-free, followed by special reports, sports and entertaining bits that Knott calls “water-cooler stuff.” Veteran WOFL anchor Cale Ramaker delivers the new show.

Over at WAGA, McHugh says Haynes—who knows the Atlanta market from a stint at CNN—will be kinetic on-air, pacing almost as much as he'll sit at the anchor desk, and freely bantering with his new colleagues from sports and weather. “We expect to have some fun on the set,” says McHugh.

Both bosses feel there's room at the 11 p.m. table. McHugh sees Haynes finding a younger audience, and says WAGA hopes to attract viewers that don't tune in to Fox at 10—owing to what he calls “darn good shows” on other networks at that hour, such Boston Legal and Law & Order. Knott says the key is offering a distinct alternative to what's already on: “Everyone does pretty much the same 11 p.m. news. Either they're feeding off their history or they're feeding off their primetime.”

While neither manager singled out what's largely seen by station bosses as an overpriced (and underwhelming) syndication market as a factor in adding 11 p.m. news, both say they're happy to produce more original content. “It's great to own our own inventory,” says Knott. “It helps us invest in infrastructure, whether it's equipment or personnel.”

Indeed, both are adding payroll to bring the new newscasts to air. Besides Haynes, WAGA welcomes a new field reporter to the fold, along with producer Tracy Shaw. Over at WOFL, Knott says the station hired new reporters, photographers, producers and writers, as well as an anchor to take over some of Ramaker's workload earlier in the day.

To be sure, it's a jammed field at 11, and the Fox stations will have to hustle to attract eyeballs at that hour. Fox O&O WJBK Detroit, for one, which launched an 11 p.m. news in late September, is described as a non-factor by one rival general manager. (WJBK general manager Jeff Murri counters that the newscast has retained 60% of its lead-in from the 10 p.m. news.)

News veterans say it's hard to get viewers to stay awake past 11, getting extra production out of maxed-out staffers is tricky, and it's increasingly difficult to stock a half-hour—never mind an hour and a half—with engaging news product each night. “When major news breaks, you can do it,” says one veteran of the Orlando news scene. “Otherwise, it's really hard to fill a half hour.”

Some rivals relish the increased competition. “When we as broadcasters are able to put together programming that viewers want, that's good for broadcasting,” says WFTV Orlando VP/General Manager Shawn Bartelt. “We welcome WOFL to the late-news race.”

WKMG Orlando VP/General Manager Henry Maldonado says the challenge for WOFL will be to hold an audience until 11, but believes the Fox station will give it the full effort. “Those guys can put out good product,” says Maldonado. “Of course, I'd like to be the only news on at 11, but I think more news is good for the market.”

True to the Fox nature, both stations aim to make a splash. “Fox is a strong news brand, and we want to be a bigger part of it,” says Knott. “We're offering a connection to the station whenever the fans of local news need it.”

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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