Dave Moore is coming back.
When the football season ends, WCCO plans to turn over weekend afternoons to the late broadcaster's satirical 1960s series, "The Bedtime Nooz," which debuted long before the "Saturday Night Live" players were ready for anything but junior high.
It's not just a trip down retro road. Twin Cities TV stations are relying more on self-produced content, old and new, to fill the airwaves. The aim is to both save money and lure viewers by offering content they can't find elsewhere on TV.
In the past 18 months, nearly a dozen hours of local news have been added to the week's schedule. "KARE OnLIVE," a daily afternoon show whose "studio audience" is Web users, debuted this past summer. And KSTP plans to launch its own afternoon talk show this spring, something it hasn't done since "Good Company" went dark in 1994.
"Fifty years ago, WCCO used to do theatrical productions, children's shows and infotainment. We're just going back to the future," said the station's general manager, Susan Adams Loyd. "It's way cool."
It's also way practical. Syndication, the selling of programs to local affiliates, isn't nearly as viable as it used to be. Popular comedies can be run into the ground on cable before local markets get a crack at them. "The Office," for example, won't be available to local stations until at least a year after repeats first appear on TBS.
Original programming is lacking in vision and appeal. There are almost as many judge shows now as there are members of the Supreme Court.
"Syndication is in a world of hurt," Loyd said. "There used to be 30 to 40 shows you would want. Now we're lucky if there are six."
The few hot properties are tougher to get. Because "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Dr. Phil" are partly owned by Paramount, a CBS partner, WCCO gets first dibs.
If stations do happen to land a big show, they have to pay a big price. Mike Smith, KSTP's director of programming, estimates that a top-rated series goes for between $40,000 and $60,000 a week. In addition, the syndicate gets three minutes of commercial time per hour, the equivalent of about $6,000 a day.
"The most successful shows become loss leaders," he said. "Why would I take money out of my own pocket when I can create my own show?"
Expect programs like KSTP's upcoming talker to focus on stories and gossip that appeal specifically to Twin Cities residents.
"Everything is customized these days, with ESPN just offering sports and the Food Network just offering food," said Al Tompkins, an instructor at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, journalism's most respected think tank. "That's where hyperlocalism comes in. It's something they can offer that you can't get anywhere else in the 200-channel cable world."
It's not just a matter of what viewers want. It's also about when they want it.
In this Internet age, folks aren't content getting news at just 5 and 10 p.m. In fact, those two time slots make less sense in today's congested-traffic culture. Many commuters don't get home in time for the pre-dinner broadcast, and they go to bed before the traditional late-night news so they can get up bright and early to beat the morning rush.
KSTP added a 6:30 p.m. newcast about a year and a half ago. "People are still calling me and thanking me for that," Smith said. "They weren't getting home on time for the other shows."
The November sweeps numbers reveal decreases in viewership at traditional times, but major jumps for morning and noontime broadcasts. The demand for news at consumers' convenience has been most apparent on weekends. Just two years ago, network affiliates offered a total of four hours of local news on Saturdays and Sundays. Today, it's 12 hours.
"More people want those options out there," said Carol Rueppel, general manager at KMSP, which added a whopping six hours of weekend news last summer. "We just satisfied a need."
The around-the-clock infrastructure has made Fox's local news stronger, she said, both on the air and on the Internet. She points to coverage of this past summer's floods in southeast Minnesota, which hit hardest over a mid-August weekend.
"Because we're now 24/7, we had people there immediately overnight," she said. "No one was scrambling from scratch."
The next digital revolution
If that sounds like a lot of new content, wait until you see what's around the corner.
By February 2009, all TV stations must go digital, which will allow stations, at times, to air four different feeds at once. For example, WCCO could be airing the local news on the mother-ship channel, while providing traffic updates, extended Holidazzle coverage and archives of Bill Carlson's film reviews simultaneously on three others.
How stations will take advantage of this change is still uncertain, but experiments are underway nationwide.
KNBC in Los Angeles is already using one of its digital feeds for "News Raw," which provides access to morning meetings that determine what will go on the newscast. WESH in Orlando, Fla., has a digital channel dedicated solely to weather.
WCCO is betting that the additional channels will provide an opportunity to do longer-format feature stories and they're getting prepared. Anchor/reporter Dennis Douda filed a 3-minute piece last month that followed a heart-attack victim from the emergency room through his recovery. Both Loyd and incoming news director Scott Libin believe that the digital feeds could provide that kind of synergy on a daily basis.
"It gives us the opportunity to do more '48 Hours' and '60 Minutes' presentations on a local basis," Loyd said.
More content means more work.
"The pace has dramatically grown, if only to feed the machine. When I tell people that my schedule has changed, I mean it's dramatically changed," said Diana Pierce, who co-anchors "KARE OnLIVE" and the 5 p.m. broadcast.
In addition to the two programs, Pierce, like so many news personalities, has added blogging and shooting photos to her workload. "Some days, we look at each other and wonder, 'How are we going to do all that?'"
Libin, who has also worked at Poynter, said stations must be careful about taking on too much as they step into the future.
"There is a limit, especially in small markets where there's a real danger that quality can be compromised," he said. "I don't think there's a danger in the Twin Cities, given the size of resources and the size of the staff, but you've got to make sure that you don't lower the quality."
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