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Monday, August 18, 2008

As Papers Cut, Tribune Updates TV News

Traffic and weather are the only exclusive content left for local TV stations

Tribune Co. is slashing staff and space at newspapers across the country. But in another old-media business -- local television news -- it's moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly half of Tribune's 23 broadcast stations are expanding or launching local news operations, many of them hiring staff as a result. The biggest investment is in KSWB-TV in San Diego, which has hired a staff of nearly 50 to produce the station's first in-house news broadcasts in nearly three years.

KSWB abandoned its original newscast in 2005 to save money. The new programs, which debut Friday, will be radically different from the old, with a format that borrows from conventions of cable television and incorporates interactive elements of the Web. Morning anchor Arthel Neville will wander an open set, chatting with reporters, as well as with "Jack the Cop," a former sergeant for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. Some correspondents could join via Web cam. If the format works well, the company could import elements to other parts of its empire.

"It's practically like there's a government regulation that regulates how a TV station sounds," says Lee Abrams, Tribune's chief innovation officer. He notes that some of local-news conventions are fodder for parody, from "The Simpsons" to the 2004 movie "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," which stars Will Ferrell as a pompous 1970s news anchor -- and is set in San Diego. "It's out of date and ready for reinvention," he says.

Mr. Abrams is part of a new management team hired by real-estate mogul Sam Zell, who led an $8.2 billion buyout of Tribune in December. The new team has been aggressive in cutting costs on the newspaper side of the business, where ad revenue has plunged since the deal amid an industrywide slump.

The tough economy and a shift of young viewers to the Internet are also hurting ad sales in the TV industry. Several owners of major station groups, including Belo Corp., CBS Corp., General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, and Walt Disney Co., have in recent weeks reported continuing softness in local advertising, and some groups have laid off staff in recent months.

But Tribune's management team, many of whom cut their teeth in broadcasting, are optimistic about growth prospects for television. Local news has long been a signature program for TV stations otherwise dependent on syndicated talk shows and sitcom reruns. Homegrown newscasts also draw a disproportionate number of local advertisers.

"News is the one area that they can control both in terms of focus and more importantly in terms of the economics," says Bill Carroll, a programming consultant for Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s Katz Media Group, an ad-sales and marketing firm. News programs brought in $4.7 billion in ad spending on U.S. local stations in 2007, up 10% compared with 2003, while advertising on non-news programming was flat, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Some station groups, such as Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. and LIN TV Corp., have been increasing their local newscasts in recent years, pushing into the newly popular area of weekend morning shows. But few if any are expanding on the scale of Tribune. Its TV station group is adding more than 90 people nationwide to its news departments by January, an increase of about 10%, according to Steve Charlier, who is in charge of news for Tribune and Local TV LLC, a station group owned by Oak Hill Capital Partners that shares resources with Tribune.

TV news reinventions aren't new. But introducing an updated format of a newscast can be risky, as CBS News learned when it revamped its Evening News by hiring Katie Couric -- only to see ratings slide sharply. There's a chance that KSWB's newscast -- which features a 900-square-foot "mega map" of San Diego spread out in a backlot behind the studio -- might not resonate in a relatively small market that already has five English-language TV news operations.

Station executives acknowledge it is a risk. "But I think it would be a much bigger risk to invest all this money, talent and people and do the same thing as everyone else," says Ray Schonbak, the station's general manager, who now oversees Tribune's other local affiliates of Fox Broadcasting.

Helping spark the decision to relaunch original news programming was the station's affiliation switch from the ailing CW network to Fox, which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp. Tribune expects Fox programming to boost the station's ratings.

"We're confident that we'll see the money back," says Ed Wilson, president of Tribune Broadcasting, of the company's news investment. "They key thing is to be local."

By: Sam Schechner
Wall Street Journal; August 1, 2008