Virtually every station carrying The Oprah Winfrey Show slams the competition. But one Tennessee station may have found a way to compete: go local. In Knoxville, talk queen Oprah Winfrey, carried at 4 p.m. on ABC affiliate WATE, is locked in a ratings battle with locally produced Style, a breezy, lifestyle show on NBC affiliate WBIR. Women in the market are fans of both. In the November sweeps, Oprah edged out Style by just two points with an 8 rating. In the two previous rating periods, the shows were tied at a 7 rating. “It is local, and it works,” says WBIR President/GM Jeff Lee.
In fact, station managers nationwide are taking a hard look at their balance of local and syndicated shows. Syndication costs are skyrocketing, yet hits are rare. In recent seasons, local broadcasters have committed to hyped shows that seemed promising, like The Wayne Brady Show, which was cancelled, and The Jane Pauley Show, which nose-dived in ratings.
Stations spend heavily on syndicated shows—upward of $100,000 a week in bigger markets. Plus, they often turn over half of the show's ad time to syndicators in so-called barter deals. “That is fine as long as the product delivers, but not many do,” says Dick Haynes, SVP of research for station consulting firm Frank N. Magid & Associates. “Stations can't continue to spend money on something that doesn't work.”
As stations cope with a dearth of syndication hits and fend off cable networks, they've found local fare a potent weapon. “Broadcasters will stay alive by creating content that resonates with their communities,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, Initiative Media's EVP of global research. “That makes stations a must-have for viewers and advertisers.”
Across the U.S., lifestyle shows and added newscasts are popping up in late-morning and afternoon slots. “Local programming is the way you distinguish yourself,” says NBC station group President Jay Ireland. It is good business, too. With a local show, broadcasters control costs and retain ad revenue.
Of course, stations have always programmed for their communities. Many children's series and entertainment shows got their start as local acts. Some of syndication's biggest stars began as hometown personalities. In 1967, talk legend Phil Donahue debuted an issue-oriented show in Dayton, Ohio. Three years later, he went national. Winfrey followed a similar path. She cut her teeth on local talk in Baltimore and moved to Chicago in 1984 to host WLS's morning show A.M. Chicago. By 1986, the renamed Oprah Winfrey Show moved to a national platform. Format shows made the jump as well.
An effort to stand out
Live With Regis and Kelly was born out of WABC New York's The Morning Show with Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford. Fox owned-and-operated KTTV Los Angeles created Good Day L.A. to compete with network morning shows, and it has morphed into a syndicated version Good Day Live. But in recent decades, the growing popularity of network and syndication, coupled with rising production costs, pushed local shows aside.
Now many local efforts are returning, this time as counter-programming. “My viewers are shopping around. They're watching TV Land and Trading Spaces on TLC,” says WBIR's Lee. “Something local like Style is our best shot at standing out.” WBIR's owner Gannett Broadcasting pushes localism hard. Most of its 20 stations tailor shows for their market. Last fall, KUSA Denver added talk and entertainment show Colorado & Company weekdays at 10 a.m. Sister station WZZM Grand Rapids, Mich., offers the half-hour lifestyle show Take Five Grand Rapids at 5 p.m., while KSDK St. Louis runs Show Me St. Louis and WUSA Washington D.C. airs 7 p.m. news to snag late commuters.
Building viewer loyalty
By promoting local ties, the company hopes to build viewer loyalty. That can help a station weather network-level trauma, such as NBC's sagging prime time on Gannett's 13 NBC stations. “The fluctuating cycles of our network partners is inevitable,” Craig Dubow, president of broadcasting, said at a recent investor conference. “Strong local content is what we can control.” ABC stations like WPVI Philadelphia and WLS Chicago survived ABC's lean prime time years, in part, because of solid local news.
Daytime is where most local broadcasters are focusing their efforts. The daypart is already packed with The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Tony Danza Show and The Ellen Degeneres Show, among others. Still, dozens of stations go local during these hours. Several NBC O&O stations use the hour after Today for light local shows, such as WCAU Philadelphia's 10 and WTVJ Miami's South Florida Today. “It extends our brand and offers us unique revenue opportunities with sponsorships and product placement,” says WTVJ President/GM Ardyth Diercks.
The lifestyle genre is ripe with ad opportunities, but broadcasters say they tread lightly. Most want to keep infotainment far from news. Tactics vary. WBIR won't accept sponsorships on Style, although it does invite local retailers as guests. Some stations use different talent to host; others change locations. WIXT Syracuse, N.Y., created an apartment-like set for morning show Bridge Street With Rick and Julie, while WCAU's 10! is outsourced to the downtown Loews Hotel. In Memphis, CBS affiliate WREG broadcasts a 9 a.m. show out of Peabody Place mall.
At the other end of daytime, late-afternoon newscasts are gaining momentum. Adding a 4 p.m. newscast can establish a beachhead. The 4 p.m. audience is smaller than the 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. news and skews more female. But a station that hooks viewers in the late afternoon may be able to hold them into early-evening news. In Philadelphia, KYW's 4 p.m. news notched a 3.1/6 in November, while WCAU's newscast posted a 5.0/10. By 6 p.m., the news on KYW grew to 5.8/10, and WCAU averaged 6.2/10. Both stations trail market leader WPVI, but their newscasts are growing.
Other major markets are airing 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. newscasts, like WGCL Atlanta, WKMG Orlando, Fla., WOIO Cleveland, KOMO Seattle and WBZ and WHDH in Boston. KYW Philadelphia added one when it moved Dr. Phil to 5 p.m. last year. Station managers in several markets report interest in that hour. Thank Oprah for the renewed interest in news. Her dominance makes it difficult for another syndicated show to compete. A newscast, station execs say, is a distinct alterative. Most stations already have personnel in place, so adding a late-afternoon newscast doesn't overload staff. At most, stations might add a producer or associate producer.
“Every GM wants to do nine hours of news a day, but you need the audience,” says WSVN Miami EVP Bob Leider. His station is researching a 4 p.m. newscast. In markets with older populations, such a newscast may also be viable.
The measure of success
The bar to measure success varies by market. KSDK's Show Me St. Louis eked out a win over KMOV's Dr. Phil last November with a 6.1 rating/17 share to Dr. Phil's 6.0/16. In a more crowded market like Miami/Fort Lauderdale, the audience is fragmented. WSVN offers Deco Drive, a local entertainment show, in prime access against Jeopardy!, The Insider and Access Hollywood. Jeopardy! toasted its competition in November with an average 7.5 rating, but Deco Drive deliverd a respectable 3.0 rating. “We're fortunate we don't need to buy that much syndication,” says Leider. “We can control our destiny.”
Despite the uptick in local shows, syndicators do not feel a sea change. Stations have too many programming hours to fill to eschew syndication altogether. Plus, it could be cost-prohibitive to staff and produce more local shows. Finally, passing on a new syndicated show that may be the year's stand-out is a financial gamble.
The best formula, advises Sony Pictures Entertainment President of Distribution John Weiser, is a programming cocktail: equal parts network, syndication and local content. “That balance gives stations stability,” he says. “They don't rely on any one source to carry them.”
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