WNBC Gets Extreme Makeover at 5

NBC flagship swaps longtime newscast for luxury and lifestyle fare
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Unless the Fashion Week gala becomes the site of a murder mystery, don't expect WNYC New York to feature hard news at 5 p.m. this week for the first time in years. In place of WNBC's 5 p.m. news—formerly bearing the iconic Live at Five brand—is a program that trades traffic jams and governor scandals for fashion, food and hunky personal trainers. The live, hour-long LX New York debuts Sept. 14 and strips a little more grit out of the WNBC brand.

“We said we'd do something different at 5 p.m.,” said WNBC VP of Content and Audience Development Vickie Burns during rehearsals Sept. 8, “and all signs point to us keeping our word.”

Live at Five launched in 1980 and became one of the premier local news brands in the country. But WNBC's newscasts have been on a downward slope for some time. In July, it posted a 1.4 household rating at 5 p.m., third behind WABC's 4.4 and WCBS' 3.4; it was fourth in adults 25-54.

WNBC dumped its 5 p.m. news in September 2007, moving the Chuck Scarborough-anchored program to 7 p.m. Scarborough later began anchoring the 7 p.m. news on WNBC's new digital channel, New York Nonstop, in March.

The NBC O&O has expanded its news reach through platforms such as taxicab newscasts and the digital channel. It's also decreased the amount of news on the broadcast channel in favor of lifestyle fare. NBC Local Media acquired the broadband video outfit LX TV in January 2008; the WNBC Web site was relaunched to favor fashion and celebrities (all the NBC-owned station sites underwent a similar overhaul), and the LX presence has grown through shows like Open House and 1st Look.

WNBC has shown it doesn't need blockbuster news ratings to make money. According to BIA Financial, WNBC led the New York revenue pack in 2008 with $293.6 million, ahead of news leader WABC's $278.5 million. NBC's New York rivals find the figures hard to believe.

NBC Local Media Senior Vice President/LX TV General Manager/Founder Morgan Hertzan uses words like “fun” and “different” to describe the debutante. LX New York's primary competition for women in the city and suburbs, Hertzan says, is reruns on cable channels such as Food Network and HGTV. “People are clearly looking for a fun alternative [at 5 p.m.],” he says.

LX New York's promos, described by Burns as “modern retro,” show broccoli stalks bouncing on seesaws, giant psychedelic lipsticks, and the slogan “Get away from it all this fall.” The hosts are LX TV veterans Sara Gore and Siafa Lewis, along with Michael Flocker, author of Metrosexual Guide to Style.

Recurring segments include the business-focused “Mommy MBA” and “Word on the Street,” which shows outspoken New Yorkers being outspoken New Yorkers. Advertisers include the grocery chain Fairway and travel and fashion retailers.

This first week features a major dose of Fashion Week, New York's semi-annual festival of couture duds in Bryant Park. The hosts will anchor from the tent, viewers will get catwalking lessons, and LX New York will launch a hunt for the city's hunkiest trainer.

LX New York, which Hertzan says costs more to produce than news, will also avail itself of the vast celebrity resources within NBC Universal. First-week guests include Late Night host Jimmy Fallon, Community star Joel McHale and Jay Leno, who appears Sept. 14 to dish about his own program also debuting that day. “NBC Universal has been 100 percent behind the show,” says Hertzan, who won't say if NBC Local Media will order up local LX shows for its other stations.

Rival station executives say LX can't do much worse than the newscast did, and question the logic of using relatively unknown hosts at 5 instead of Gotham icons Scarborough and Sue Simmons.

Frank N. Magid Senior V.P. Bill Hague says LX sounds like a local version of NBC's failed iVillage Live, but believes there are enough females near a TV in the #1 DMA to make a good program fly. “If it gets some buzz, people will find it,” he says. “If they couldn't make it work with news, maybe they can make it work with entertainment.”

LX New York will feature one news cut-in each half hour, but otherwise will be bereft of hard news. Showcasing frilly dresses and beefy trainer types at 5 may rankle some WNBC newshounds, but Burns, formerly the VP of news at WRC Washington, says the station's commitment to news remains unbowed. “There's first-rate news on WNBC, New York Nonstop and all of our other platforms,” she says. “There's no lack of news at WNBC.”

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michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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