During just the second day of his new TV show, co-anchor Jeff Wagner was battling allergies, relying on a tissue box as much as the teleprompter. But he temporarily stopped sniffling when his watery eyes caught a promotion for "The 4 on WCCO."
"We have a billboard?" he asked during a late commercial break.
Wagner and his on-air partner Erin Hassanzadeh have more than that. Their one-hour program, which debuted on Sept. 5 on WCCO-TV, owns the afternoon time slot once occupied by "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," joining a nationwide trend in which affiliates are passing on syndicated shows to turn more time over to its local news personalities.
KAAL-TV, based in Rochester, just added a late-morning news program. Duluth's WDIO now has "The Lift," a 4:30 p.m. show that mainly explores fun activities in the Northland area.
Here in the Twin Cites, several affiliates jumped on the bandwagon earlier.
KSTP-TV scrapped "Live With Kelly and Ryan" last fall, replacing it with "Minnesota Live," a morning version of its afternoon talker, "Twin Cities Live," which just celebrated its 14th anniversary.
In 2016, KARE 11 bumped "Entertainment Tonight" at 6:30 p.m. for "Breaking the News," a more casual version of the NBC affiliate's nightly newscasts.
"We're veterans in the news expansion business," said Mim Davey, general manager at Fox 9, which added the locally produced "The Jason Show" and an 11 a.m. news hour to its lineup within the past five years. "With more people working from home remotely, there's more time to consume news."
With "The 4 on WCCO," the station is aiming for a blend of its informal content in the morning and the harder-edged headlines that dominate the evening broadcasts.
"We're trying to be a bit of a bridge," Hassanzadeh said at a WCCO conference room, a few minutes after signing off.
Instead of anchor desks, Hassanzadeh and Wagner sit in aqua-blue chairs, forcing both news veterans to upgrade their shoe choices. While viewers will still get updates on major stories, much of the hour will take a deeper dive into "softer" stories.
In the show's second episode, the conversations revolved around food-delivery services, popular NFL mascots and why folks like Wagner are having a particularly hard time this season with allergies. Reporters pop by to give more perspective on pieces they're also filing for other broadcasts.
The format gives the journalists a chance to show that they're more than just talking heads. In his first appearance on the show, new reporter Derek James showed off photos of himself with his two sons as they set off for their first day of school.
"Erin and I have had slivers of opportunities to show our true personality and we're hoping with this hour that we get a chance to showcase what makes us laugh and what happens in our personal life," said Wagner. "I do think that's what viewers want."
It's also what station managers want, especially when they weigh other options. The end of "Ellen" means there's no longer a blockbuster syndicated series (sorry, Kelly Clarkson and Drew Barrymore). It's cheaper to make something locally.
Hank Price, who writes a column for the online site TVNewsCheck, doesn't know what WCCO was paying to run "Ellen," but he estimates that it might have been around $20,000 a week. That adds up to over $1 million a year.
"If you save the money from 'Ellen' and you don't have a great program to replace it, you do local news," said Price, who formerly served as general manager at KARE 11, as well as stations in Chicago and Birmingham, Ala. "It's inexpensive."
Price also points out that politicians would rather buy ads during local-news broadcasts than during game shows and soap operas. That means stations in states like Minnesota that routinely have hotly contested races can clean up during campaign season.
Amanda Tadych, KSTP-TV's director of programming and promotions, said "Live With Kelly and Ryan" used to pull strong numbers for her station. But ratings had started to dwindle. At some point, the ABC affiliate fell to third or fourth in that time slot. Its replacement, "Minnesota Live," usually finishes first or second.
"Even if we were still number three, we're able to back promote our morning show and promote our anchors in a more lighthearted way, while still being informational," said Tadych, who oversees more than 70 hours of local programming each week. "And we make a little more money. It's a win-win."
Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest aren't the only national hosts dealing with declining interest. Earlier this month, NBC moved "Days of Our Lives" to its streaming service, Peacock, adding to the slow death of soaps on network TV. NBC is filling the void with a national news hour, one that will offer live updates on the most important stories of the day.
"News happens quickly and it's breaking all the time," said Morgan Radford, one of the anchors for "NBC News Daily," a midday news program that premiered last week. "There are presidential briefings right at that hour."
But Radford and her co-anchor Vicky Nguyen have an uphill battle. According to a 2022 poll from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, six out of 10 Americans have more trust in local news than national news when it comes to information they can use in their daily lives.
"I think Minnesotans want to hear from Minnesotans," said WCCO news director Kari Patey. "I think there's something to the idea that we might see it how you see it, rather than someone from the outside judging and assessing."
Wagner said some viewers may be fatigued by the pace and urgency on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
"On cable, everything is breaking news for 15 hours straight," he said. "I don't see that here."
If you think the amount of local TV news has reached its threshold, think again.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that NBC is considering a plan to turn the 9 p.m. hour over to affiliates.
According to the Journal, NBC could save tens of millions of dollars in content costs if an hour of prime time programming is eliminated. Its affiliates would likely welcome having extra time to program, so they can earn more ad revenue.
If that happens, you can bet that a lot of the local stations will use it as an opportunity to get an early start on the evening news.
More hours of broadcasting means extra responsibilities for already strained news staffs, which could result in a more diluted product. But Scott Libin, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, said adding a few more hours of newscasts isn't as taxing as one might imagine.
New technology, like the ability to do Zoom interviews and creating graphics at their desk, allows journalists to be more efficient. A typical hour in the afternoon might rely heavily on re-racked reports, network packages, chit-chats between anchors and updates from meteorologists who are already in the studio, none of which are very expensive or time-consuming.
"It is possible to create content, and some of it very compelling, without investing in a whole new staff," said Libin, who served as news director at both KSTP and WCCO.
But at some point, stations could go too far.
"You can't keep adding local news until that's all you do," said Price. "There's a breaking point. Sadly, we won't know what that is until it breaks."
New news shows
Local weekday news shows that have premiered in the last year:
"The 4 on WCCO": A quick look at headlines, followed by way-we-live stories and conversations with news personalities. 4 p.m. WCCO, Ch. 4
"The Lift": Baihly Warfield hosts this half-hour tribute to the Northland, and it's packed with tips about what to explore in and around Duluth. 4:30 p.m. weekdays, WDIO, Ch. 10
"Minnesota Live": A lifestyle show hosted by Megan Newquist and Chris Egert. 9 a.m. KSTP, Ch. 5
"ABC6 News Daytime": The Rochester-based team offers, among other things, updates on breaking news and the weather, leading into a third hour of "Good Morning America." 11 a.m. KAAL, Ch. 6