Starting next week, viewers in Little Rock will see something different: a local news option at 6:30 p.m. On April 6, Gannett's CBS affiliate KTHV launches Today's THV at 6:30, offering what station management is calling an expansive, “anchor-driven” program covering the economy, University of Arkansas sports and other topics of interest in the No. 56 DMA.
“There isn't another local news in that time period, so we felt there was an opportunity,” says President/General Manager Larry Audas. “The news is much more personal these days—the economy has an effect on each of us. So it seemed appropriate to consider this.”
The new program will flow out of the 6 p.m. news, with anchors Craig O'Neill and Liz Massey tossing to Dawn Scott, then pitching in with the 6:30 anchor duties after Scott delivers the initial news block.
Audas says the program's look and feel will be different from its lead-ins. (KTHV airs local news at 5 and CBS Evening News at 5:30, and the market starts primetime at 7.) The station will play up its “Community Journalism” segments, which provide what KTHV calls a “two-way conversation” with viewers through message boards and e-mails. KTHV will expand its “Hog Zone” pieces on Arkansas Razorbacks sports, along with offering more analysis and giving the anchors a greater say in what segments air, who the guests are and how long interviews run. Management suggests an almost improvised feel, with programming decisions made right up until showtime.
“It's a little different than the standard scripted/producer-managed program,” Audas says. “There's a little more emphasis on the anchor.”
Today's THV at 6:30 bumps Extra off the schedule. Audas says the project got the green light based on KTHV's recent gains in local news ratings. The station and Allbritton's KATV have both been gunning for the No. 1 spot for years, and KTHV's growth at 6 p.m.—it won all demos at 6 in November, according to Audas—set the stage for the debut. KTHV and sales agency Telerep studied a half-dozen other newscasts in that time slot and time zone to see how they retained viewers. The station also added a 9 a.m. Monday-to-Friday newscast in September.
Audas thinks the stars are properly aligned for the 6:30 program to do a decent number; his goal is to match the 6 p.m. program's rating, which was 6.4 in the 25-54 demo in November. “You have to have several factors working for you,” he says. “You need a strong news brand, and the market has to have a strong appetite for local news.”
The nation's economic ills also factored into KTHV's decision to launch the program; both Audas and News Director Chuck Maulden say it's one of those rare chapters in American history where viewers are exceptionally hungry for timely and pertinent news. As such, the station's “Recession Report Card” will get extended play on the 6:30 program.
“Everybody's on edge, wondering what's going to happen to them,” Maulden says. “Anytime we can give people news that helps them survive the economy, the better off they are.”
While so many stations are cutting back newscasts and staff—WCCO Minneapolis dismissed popular anchor Jeanette Trompeter, while XETV San Diego scrapped its sports segments earlier this month—it's noteworthy that KTHV is adding local programming. Gannett has been hit by the economic earthquake as hard as any media company, mandating last week that its employees take a second week of unpaid leave in the second quarter.
Maulden says his 44-person newsroom rose to the challenge of cranking out more news amidst furloughs in the first quarter, and they'll do it again in the coming months. “They've handled the news pretty well,” he says. “It doesn't change our plans.”
Today's THV at 6:30 will be up against Wheel of Fortune on KATV, Entertainment Tonight on KARK and King of the Hill on KLRT, among others in the region. Local-news insiders say it's a low-risk bet for Gannett. Adding a half-hour of news helps amortize the cost of newsgathering, while cutting back on the escalating expense of syndication. And with the rest of the market airing syndicated programming, it can be an effective counterprogramming play—with the premium ad rates typical for local news to boot. “It gets harder and harder to find a time period where your competitor is not on the air,” says one consultant who asked not to be identified.
That consultant mentions another program in a less-traditional news slot in the Gannett group. WUSA Washington's 7 p.m. newscast 9 News Now Tonight does a modest number, the consultant says, but still appears profitable.
“If everybody else is zigging,” adds the consultant, “maybe this is the place to zag.”
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