Fox affiliates drift away from off-net sitcoms in early fringe and access

Yours truly had to do a double take when John Kiesewetter of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported last week that Fox affiliate WXIX-TV in Cincinnati was dumping off-network sitcoms Seinfeld and Family Guy for… Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy?

It is indeed true – the Raycom-owned station in Cincinnati has purchased the older-skewing game shows for airing beginning in September 2012, after longtime incumbent station WCPO-TV passed on renewing the shows. Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate had aired the game shows since the 1980’s, when WCPO was still a CBS affiliate (they returned to ABC in 1996 after a 35-year hiatus.)

Wheel of Fortune began its syndicated run on NBC affiliate WLWT in 1983, where it ran for two years.

Most Fox affiliates were former independent stations, which back in the day made off-network programming the centerpieces of their schedules. But with the invasion of cable TV and other alternative video options, much of the audience who watched that fare have drifted away.

So why did WXIX -decide to grab the game shows for prime access? Because the station wants to attract the 25-54 demo to its early-evening newscasts, which the game shows are a better fit than the off-network sitcoms it was running, which included Seinfeld, Family Guy, and The King of Queens. Beginning on September 13, WXIX plans to run Who Wants To Be A Millionaire at 5 p.m and 5:30 p.m., as a lead in to the 6 p.m. newscast.

It’s a formula that has been successful at Fox affiliate WVUE-TV in New Orleans, which has had major success with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in prime access after luring the shows away from powerhouse  CBS affiliate WWL-TV in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the region. WVUE – which was traditionally a distant third as an ABC affiliate – made inroads into WWL’s dominance as a result, particularly in news (WVUE has been a Fox affiliate since 1996.) It’s the same kind of success WXIX hopes to duplicate.

In some cases, it hasn’t worked – Fox-owned WAGA-TV in Atlanta nabbed Wheel and Jeopardy from NBC affiliate WXIA-TV in 1990 when WAGA was still a CBS affiliate. When then-owner New World switched WAGA and eleven other stations to Fox in 1994-95, the shows weren’t a good matchup for Fox’s young-skewing lineup and the duo were bounced back to WXIA in 1997 (both now appear on WXIA’s sister station, My Network TV affiliate WATL-TV. WXIA and WATL are both owned by Gannett.) 

The moves comes at a time as many Fox affiliates are moving away from the traditional off-network sitcoms they have carried in the early evening hours and into more news programming and first-run syndicated programming, including TMZ, Extra, and Access: Hollywood. While Fox-owned WFLD does not have an early fringe newscast, it has only three off-net sitcoms on its weekday schedule – The Office, The Simpsons, and M*A*S*H, with the rest of its off-network programming acquisitions shoved onto sister station WPWR-TV.

WXIX isn’t abandoning off-net sitcoms all together – the station is keeping The Simpsons and other shows on its late-fringe schedule, mirroring Fox affiliates’ desire to keep off-network sitcoms in the daypart, instead of airing first-run network programming – this is one of the reasons why Fox passed on Conan O’Brien.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati fans of the two disposed off-net sitcoms can find them on WKRC digital subchannel 12.2 beginning next year with Seinfeld moving in March and Family Guy moving in September (first-run episodes of Family Guy will continue to air on WXIX through Fox, of course.)

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