News at 10 Grows Up

“Early” late news beats 11 p.m. newscasts in many markets
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When New York's Channel 5 launched its 10 p.m. news, Frank Sinatra's “Strangers in the Night” rocked the charts, Lyndon Johnson was president, and the so-called Summer of Love was a few months away. At the time, there was one other “early” late news in the country, on WTTG Washington.

Forty years later, Fox O&Os WNYW and WTTG are joined by more than 200 newscasts nationwide that air in that 10 p.m. slot (or 9 p.m. CT), including a total of three in New York. Amidst changing lifestyle patterns and viewers' increasing hunger for news, industry veterans say they've seen the early late newscast transform from something of an afterthought to a worthy competitor for its established 11 p.m. counterparts. It's frequently beating those later newscasts in the ratings—and, in several cases, even expanding into the 11 p.m. hour.

“The 10 p.m. news was at one time a second-level broadcast, but now it's seen in a much more favorable light,” says Bruce Northcott, principal at research firm Crawford Johnston & Northcott. “It's often a viable competitor who can go toe to toe with 11 p.m. broadcasts.”

Station executives offer several suggestions as to why the 10 p.m. news has flourished on various Fox, CW and MyNetworkTV (MNT) affiliates. Many say people are retiring to bed earlier, waking up earlier, and working harder to satisfy company mandates to get more out of fewer employees. “I've been up at 5:30 for 12 years now, and there's much more traffic on the road now than before,” says Lew Leone, VP/general manager at WNYW and MNT outlet WWOR. “Who can wait up for the 11 p.m. news?”

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The recent sweeps performance of the 10 p.m. Fox newscasts—featuring investigative reports, viewer e-mails and heavy tie-ins to network monoliths like American Idol and 24—reinforce just how vital they've become.

Fox TV Stations Senior VP, Programming, Frank Cicha says they're up a collective 16% in households from a year ago. Furthermore, Fox's 10 p.m. newscasts topped all 11 p.m. news in four of nine local-people-meter markets (Los Angeles, Boston, Washington and Atlanta) and came in second in three more, including New York.

Cicha says it's a combination of better training at stations, sharper Websites, stronger Fox programming and improved sharing between markets, abetted by digital newsgathering: “We're acting as one big team more than we ever have.”

Several stations around the country scored significant late-news wins at 10 p.m. Fox O&O WJW Cleveland posted an 11.5 rating/17.6 share in February and has won late news for years. In Portland, Ore., Meredith's KPTV expects to claim its fourth straight late-news victory with its 10 p.m. newscast when February results are available there.

Not satisfied to simply out-rate the 11 p.m. newscasts, several 10 p.m. entrants are expanding into that time slot. The past year has seen WTTG, WTVT Tampa, Fla., KMSP Minneapolis (9 p.m. CT) and KPTV add an extra half-hour. Next month, Chicago's Fox O&O will stretch to 90 minutes, too.

And with so much political money on the horizon, many say there's no better time to expand. “That's hugely important going into 2008,” says Mark Toney, senior VP of research firm SmithGeiger. “You're going to need all the political avails you can get.”

MNT affiliate WSTR Cincinnati's 10 p.m. news hasn't made a huge splash since debuting in August. But Chris Sehring, the CBS affiliate manager who produces WSTR's news, says the political cash that looms makes the venture a smart bet. “We're breaking even now,” he says, “but there's a lot of upside to it.”

Of course, not every primetime newscast has flourished. “If you don't have an enticing, well-produced news at 10, people are not going to watch it,” says Kevin O'Brien, who years ago ran the 10 p.m. newscast at KTVU Oakland, Calif., that's credited with being the first to challenge the 11 p.m. newscasts.

Still, many stations are finding their share of news junkies at 10. “It's a newscast of convenience,” says Bill Hague, senior VP of research firm Magid Associates. “If done properly, I love it.”

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

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