WFLD to launch 10 p.m. newscast (updated)

In a move that’s been rumored for the last several months, Fox-owned WFLD-TV will launch a 10 p.m. newscast on April 9.

The move replaces the late-night airing of The Simpsons. Repeats of the program will remain in the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. time slots, for now. Bart & Co. has held the 10 p.m. time slot for a long time, since December 1996.

Anchoring the newscast is Dave Novarro, who previously worked the morning show at the Fox station and Lauren Cohn, a vet of several Chicago news operations. Amy Freeze, who was hired from NBC-owned WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, will handle weather, and Corey McPherrin will handle sports. The newscast will target viewers in the money demo, aka adults 18-49.

The 9 p.m. newscast will remain as is, with no changes. While WGN usually leads in household ratings, it’s a different story in adults 18-49, where in the recent February sweeps, WFLD beat its archrival soundly, and tied with WLS-TV’s 10 p.m. newscast for number one, thanks to popular Fox shows American Idol, 24, and House.

As for The Simpsons, the program may move into the 10:30pm slot in the interim, but this fall, its’ likely that TMZ, the new celebrity magazine show from Warner Bros., will claim that slot.

Analysis: You’re probably asking, “Why are they doing this? There are already stations airing news at 10. More crime news and celebrity fluff. They’re going to get crushed. And on top of that, they’re taking an airing of The Simpsons away. They suck. They’re bastards!”

Before you write that letter to Feder, calm down and a take a moment to read this:

While I agree on all fronts, let’s face it: the off-network sitcom market isn’t as strong as it used to be. Fox-owned stations like WFLD are aggressively pushing a news expansion. Soon, the station will likely enter the 5 p.m. news race as well, which many Fox O&Os (like New York City and Washington, D.C. are already in.

Why? Well, one, the commercial inventory in newscasts is all theirs – they don’t have to share it with syndicators, which is a demand for any product they sell to stations nowadays. Two, news is more profitable than spending tons of money on off-network sitcoms that don’t work, or are steadily declining in the ratings. Three, the days of counter-programming news with family-type sitcoms in early fringe are for the most part, over. Those type of shows aren’t made anymore, except for the fare on The Disney Channel. Furthermore, the animated blocks that used to dominate afternoons on independent stations that fed into these shows are long gone. Today’s kids now watch that stuff on cable or on home video, or don’t watch TV at all during that part of the day.

Some Fox stations have had some success in airing news opposite the big three affiliated stations – for example, KMSP-TV in Minneapolis has beaten a traditional rival, ABC affiliate KSTP-TV in the 10 p.m. news ratings for a few years now, and WTTG in Washington has also had success at 11.

Back to the matter at hand. While The Simpsons move will be unpopular, ratings for the 10 p.m. airing have declined for years. Sex and the City on WGN-TV, has constantly beat it in the ratings, and The King of Queens on WCIU-TV has also done well in that same time slot. Cable entities like The Daily Show and Adult Swim have eaten into the young-male audience for The Simpsons, and they have triple-run the show for several years, even running the same episodes (usually from later seasons) within days or weeks of each other in different slots, causing more audience erosion.

The competition will get even tougher next year, with WGN acquiring male-skewing favorites Two and a Half Men and Family Guy for syndication this fall (If you’re wondering if WGN will follow WFLD’s lead and expand to 10 or to early fringe, forget it – it’s not going to happen, at least not anytime soon, given Tribune’s grave financial situation.) WGN could capture young males at 10 left behind by The Simpsons by airing Family Guy to counter the newscasts, though it would mean moving the female-friendly Sex and the City to 11 or later.

A possibility would be to move the 10 p.m. airing of The Simpsons to sister station WPWR-TV, where it would fit nicely with King of the Hill. But the question is, will viewers find it? On the upside, it could draw more viewers than Scrubs, the off-network sitcom that currently occupies that time slot. The downside? The ratings for the animated comedy could go down even further, not matching the numbers it had in the same time slot on WFLD.

Several years ago, viewers complained when The Simpsons were replaced by syndicated Frasier repeats at 10. Due to the outcry, they were back on in no time. Unfortunately, viewers who complain this time are likely to be out of luck.

– On a side note, doesn’t anybody find it interesting that WFLD’s new expansion to 10 p.m. was not mentioned on any of the TV trade websites (except for TVnewsday?) If WNYW in New York announced a news extension, you bet your behind it would be mentioned. Talk about your East Coast Bias.

Updated 2007-03-08 at 11:55pm