The end of local news came quickly at WYOU in northeastern Pennsylvania. On the afternoon of Friday, April 3, the station announced that its news department had been dismissed, and that day's newscasts would be the station's last. “The viewers have spoken, letting us know that WYOU is the station they rely on for entertainment,” Dennis Thatcher, EVP/COO of station owner Mission Broadcasting, spun in a statement.
WYOU's news ratings, or lack thereof, had spoken as well, with its household ratings consistently in the 1s. WYOU's news, which was produced by Nexstar's WBRE, clearly was not reaching much of an audience in Wilkes Barre-Scranton.
“It's not like we weren't trying,” says Thatcher, reeling off a list of attempts to invigorate local news. “I'm not so sure it came down to people not liking WYOU news. They just like WBRE's and WNEP's better.”
Operating in the #54 DMA, the CBS affiliate may be the highest profile station to scrap news in years, a move that saves Nexstar about $900,000 annually. But indications are it won't be the last.
With local television going through the worst slump of most any broadcasting veteran's career, station insiders say numerous groups are taking a hard look at underperforming news departments. While local news represents a hefty chunk of revenue, it increasingly doesn't pay to keep a fourth-place outfit afloat.
News can be 'totally unprofitable'
“In the next 12 to 18 months, you're going to have downsizing of news in many markets,” says SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney. “At some stations, it's simply not very profitable—or it's totally unprofitable, and the station is not making money because of the cost of news.”
Consultants say the earmarks of a station set to possibly scrap news are a debt-ridden parent company, being part of a duopoly, broadcasting in a small market and ratings in the 1s and 2s. As one broadcast veteran sees it, “The bottom line is: Do all markets need three or four newscasts in the same time period?”
News represented about 45% of a typical station's revenue in 2007, according to the most recent RTNDA study.
It's extremely rare for stations to pull the plug on news entirely. Topeka's KTKA did so in 2002, but brought it back four years later under a new owner.
More typical is a station eliminating specific newscasts; for example, WFLA Tampa is scrapping its 11 a.m. newscast next month and WUSA Washington did away with a pair of weekend newscasts in January.
WYOU, which will sub in the likes of Judge Joe Brown in early evening and Access Hollywood at 11 p.m., was in a unique situation. Local TV's WNEP commands about half the market's revenue, according to BIA Financial. WBRE is a strong news station, and Fox affiliate WOLF does a popular 10 p.m. newscast as well.
Thatcher says WYOU does well in daytime, prime and late night. (Neither it nor WBRE subscribe to Nielsen ratings.) As he suggests, WYOU tried when it came to news. In June, the station added 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. newscasts, along with WYOU Interactive at 6 p.m., which invited viewers to participate through emails and phone calls.
None of it seemed to resonate. Thatcher quips that you could open your window at 11 p.m. and hear the sound of people clicking away from WYOU; the station lost 80% of its network audience Monday through Friday, he says. “The network certainly did their job,” he adds. “We couldn't hold the lead-in.”
Lack of sustainability
WBRE VP/General Manager Lou Abitabilo says they gave it their all since Nexstar started producing WYOU's news in 1997. “There's no doubt in my mind that we tried everything we could to give viewers something they'd be attracted to try,” he says. “Nothing seemed to get the support needed to hit a level of sustainability.”
The absence of WYOU's news made only a modest splash in the market. Abitabilo says he'd received fewer than 50 phone calls about it as of last Tuesday, some wondering if the lack of local news was related to the analog shutdown they kept hearing about.
Abitabilo says the whole WYOU anchor crew, including Mark Hiller, Lyndall Stout and Eric Scheiner, was reassigned to WBRE.
The coming months, or perhaps weeks, will tell which group will be the next to drop local news. Nexstar, which produces news for a dozen Mission-owned stations, did not return a call for comment.
Thatcher says Mission remains committed to local news, but will hold a magnifying glass to “all departments all the time.” He seemed genuinely saddened to see WYOU's news history, however humble, come to such an abrupt end.
“I sincerely hope this is the last time we have to do this,” he says.
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