Almost as surely as the cherry blossoms arrive in Washington, D.C., in spring, NBC affiliate WRC trumps competitors in news.
Executives credit an anchor team with 20-plus years apiece in the D.C. market, the NBC News Washington bureau in the building, and a measured approach to reporting. “We don't take a point of view,” says President/General Manager Michael Jack. “And we may not necessarily be first with the story, but we'll get the story right.”
NBC-owned WRC won the news race at 6 a.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.; it took top honors at 11 p.m., although Fox affiliate WTTG won late news with its 10 p.m. offering. So strong is WRC's news—and so weak NBC's prime—that, in May sweeps, its 11 p.m. newscast averaged more viewers (117,000) than primetime (115,000), which was last among the Big Four. “Prime certainly presents issues for us on the sales side,” says Jack.
The No. 8 Nielsen market, which switched to local people meters two years ago, snagged $534.4 million in 2006, according to BIA Financial, up from $490.4 million the year before. Following a year in which political monies streamed into the nation's capital, BIA forecasts a flat 2007. Leading the 2006 pack was WRC with an estimated $136 million, ahead of Allbritton's ABC affiliate WJLA ($114 million), Fox-owned WTTG ($108.9 million), and Gannett's CBS outlet WUSA ($88.5 million).
Although Washington is best-known for pols in dark suits traipsing up and down Capitol Hill, the market is diverse. It's around 25% African-American, is considered the No. 2 college market (after Boston), and is as much about the suburbs as the iconic District.
With so many venturing inside the Beltway each day, traffic is a huge news driver. Washington has long been known as an early-to-bed/early-to-rise community, and station brass say that's becoming even more the case.
“It's amazing how many people are asleep by 10 p.m.,” says WUSA President/General Manager Allan Horlick, whose station tied WRC for first in the pitched 5 a.m-news battle.
In an extraordinarily news-hungry town, it's no surprise that stations are pouring major resources into their Websites. In what Horlick terms “no less than a cultural revolution,” WUSA reporters are trained to consider online elements when creating their stories, as opposed to simply repurposing them for the Web. Tribune's CW outlet, WDCW, is streaming community-affairs program The Inner Loop, as well as entertainment programming from corporate sibling KTLA Los Angeles. WTTG solicits content ideas from all station departments, not just the newsroom, and WJLA benefits from Allbritton's politics Website/newspaper The Politico, operating out of the WJLA newsroom. “Adding 50 really smart people to the news operation is a great resource for us,” says WJLA VP of News Bill Lord.
Stations are trying new things to combat WRC's primacy. Horlick, who spent a long career at NBC before starting at WUSA in January, brought on Mike Ward to shake up the newsroom with “more-relevant” reportage.
WTTG, which won primetime on the strength of American Idol, will move its noon news to 11 a.m. next month and expand it to an hour. “There are three newscasts at noon and none at 11,” says VP/General Manager Duffy Dyer. “It made sense from a programming standpoint, as well as staffing and workflow.”
But it'll be some time before WRC is knocked off its perch. Says Jack, “We've had an emotional handshake with our audience for years and years.”
Next: Birmingham, Ala.