With several stations debuting Teen Kids News in early January, Al Primo's syndicated news program has surpassed the 200-station mark. Considered the creator of the “Eyewitness News” concept, Primo recently inked deals with a batch of stations owned by groups such as Sinclair and Nexstar to bring the total to 206, reaching 91% of the United States.
While the 30-minute newscast may not be a ratings smash, program directors say it offers a high-quality take on current events, reinforces their station's news brand and helps fulfill the FCC's mandate for educational programming.
Some station executives regard watching children's programming the way a child regards eating vegetables, but program directors almost unanimously say Teen Kids News (TKN) represents the genre exceedingly well. “I sit through it and enjoy it—it's very watchable,” says WTHR Indianapolis Program Director Rod Porter. “I can't say that for a lot of kids shows.”
Can I Get A 'Witness?
Primo established the Eyewitness News format, which relies on field reporters to tell their own stories on the set, as opposed to simply writing them for the anchors, when he was news director at KYW Philadelphia back in 1965. He later brought the format to WABC New York. His book, Eyewitness Newsman, came out this past November.
Primo splits his time between his Old Greenwich, Conn., home office and TKN digs in Manhattan. The program is shot in Manhattan and on location around the country.
Recently renewed for a seventh season, TKN offers stations 26 original programs a year and another 26 “refreshed” ones, Primo says, with topical material mixed in with more evergreen content. The anchors are teenagers (talent has included Meredith Vieira's son Gabe and Paula Zahn's daughter Haley), stories cover everything from the environment to teen suicide to timely entertainment segments, and the target audience is 13-16.
“I like to say it's Eyewitness News with teenagers,” Primo says.
TKN's station partners include the entire Hearst-Argyle group; Fox O&O WNYW New York; ABC O&Os in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia; Sinclair's WTTE Columbus; and Tribune's WTIC Hartford. The show is also stripped of commercials and repurposed in nearly 8,000 schools nationwide, with a two-minute weekly segment from Fox News added to the mix. TKN is distributed worldwide through the American Forces Network, which brings it to 175 countries, and Primo says a pilot program will kick off in the first quarter of 2009 that will see TKN air on the televisions located in McDonald's and Burger King playground spaces.
Fighting For Profitability
According to Primo, TKN was created to tell some of the positive stories about American teens.
“Every time I see a kid on TV, they're talking about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, or shooting up schools,” he says. “I thought, is every kid really that bad? There are positive stories about kids that need to be told.”
Primo expects TKN to break even financially in 2009, something it has not done yet. (He says he has about 15 partners in the venture.) Opportunities are opening up for the show. For one, the Fox network has scaled back its weekend kids block, prompting affiliates to find programming to fill the FCC's “educational and informational” (E/I) mandate. (A Fox spokesperson said the network used to offer some E/I programming to affiliates, but that the responsibility to fill the mandate has always rested on the affiliates.)
And as stations increasingly tap their digital potential in advance of the Feb. 17 analog shutoff, some are finding room for TKN on the digital tier. While stations typically air the show on weekend mornings, Raycom's WOIO Cleveland, for one, runs it on its weather channel Monday to Thursday at 7 a.m. Program Director Lisa McManus calls it a “slow-grower,” as multicasting is hardly a mature business in the market, but says TKN is a good fit for an aggressive news station in a competitive market.
'A Solid Show'
Others find that TKN complements the programming in its daypart, whether it's news or youth-oriented fare. Meredith's KPDX Portland airs it at noon on Sundays, followed by a teen quiz show. VP/General Manager Patrick McCreery says the ratings are lukewarm (typically a .5 to a 1), but TKN plays a valuable role on the schedule. “It's a solid show, and it pairs up well with the quiz show to give us a solid hour,” he says. “It's an underserved market, so we're happy to have it.”
Befitting a career newsman, Primo is hardly resting on his laurels. He's pushing the 50-person TKN staff to find compelling stories, and pushing himself to find new station partners. As Primo puts it: “I'm working the phones every day of my life.”