Two new efforts launching on opposite ends of September hopes to appeal to news viewers tired of partisan news
Starting today, a revolution is taking place and it’s happening right here in Chicago. And it is…presenting a neutral newscast.
The arrival of the much-anticipated NewsNation today and of CNBC’s The News With Shepard Smith later this month will test the theory of whether or not viewers can accept news down the middle, without left or right slant. The three major cable news networks – CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are driving journalism with partisan reporting and is now the go-to place for news, whether people admit it or not. And even though ABC, CBS, and NBC produce national newscasts, they are often accused of bias.
“Neutral news” isn’t a new concept. Walter Cronkite and the Brinkley-Huntley Report did news stories without bias as did the early days of CNN and Headline News. But national newscasts have become more personality-driven in the last 20 years ,as they bring big ratings. “Neutral” news targeted to mainstream audiences are a novelty now, and it’s a void NewsNation and Shepard Smith hope to fill.
The roots for NewsNation came about with Nexstar – a company formed in 1996 in Pennsylvania with one TV station – purchased Tribune Broadcasting in 2019 for $4.1 billion with Chicago’s WGN-TV and cable network WGN America as part of the deal. The acquisition made Nexstar the nation’s largest station group with more than 190 stations in over 100 markets.
NewsNation was an idea Sean Compton pitched to Nexstar CEO Perry Sook as he was looking to produce a product different from its competitors and to provide programming for a flagging WGN America, whose life began in 1978 as a satellite feed from WGN-TV, providing exposure for Bozo, the Cubs, and local Chicago newscasts as much of the station’s appeal was taken out by the 1990 syndex rules, which forced WGN to black out much of its entertainment programming. In the last few years, WGN America was forced to reinvent itself numerous times, which included converting into a national cable network from a superstation (by dropping local Chicago news and sports) and adding original scripted programming.
In January, NewsNation was unveiled with plans for three hours of news in prime-time seven nights a week with a dedicated 24/7 website and news app. Unlike other news shows based in New York or Washington D.C., Nexstar decided to originate it in Chicago at WGN – in the Heartland. They tapped WGN news director Jennifer Lyons to head the project and hire about 150 people.
Then, the pandemic hit in March making the launch of the project harder. But Nexstar pressed on and the project – building the studios and hiring the talent, were finished on time. Instead of poaching talent from the major cable news networks, NewsNation hired anchors directly from local news stations: Joe Donalan from right down the hall at WGN; Rob Nelson from WABC-TV in New York; Marni Hughes; and meteorologist Albert Ramon. Stationed as correspondents are two former Chicago news reporters: Tom Negovan, who is based in New York, and Nancy Loo, based out of Nexstar CW affiliate KTLA in Los Angeles.
Nexstar is relying on its network of 110 stations and their anchors and reporters to provide material for NewsNation – and without landing a big name.
But landing a big name is exactly what CNBC did when they announced the hire of Shepard Smith, the former Fox News personality who’ll join the network with the launch of The News With Shepard Smith premieres on September 30 (a Wednesday) at 6 p.m. Central Time.
Smith spent twenty years at Fox News as a non-partisan journalist and had a successful late afternoon news show. But Smith departed the channel last year after he had problems with opinion hosts at the network, especially when it came to President Trump.
“I am honored to continue to pursue the truth, both for CNBC’s loyal viewers and for those who have been following my reporting for decades in good times and in bad,” Smith said back in July.
CNBC executives hope the hire of Smith would drive viewers to its prime-time lineup of programming, featuring off-network episodes of Shark Tank and original programming such as Jay Leno’s Garage. Launched in April 1989, CNBC mainly focuses on financial news during the day while its prime-time programming has historically floundered. At one point, they gave actors Charles Grodin and Dennis Miller their own nightly talk shows.
Is there an audience for such fare as NewsNation? We’ll soon find out, but you can expect partisan cable news fans to roll their eyes at efforts like this. But they’re not the target audience as they’ll be watching Tucker Carlson, Don Lemon, and Rachel Maddow anyway, so the void can be filled. But it won’t be easy, with hot-topic button issues such as racial unrest and Covid-19 – and of course, the upcoming presidential election. And keep in mind Fox News is already established, drawing five million a night on average and performs strongly in the 18-49 and 25-54 demos.
With non-partisan newscasts, WGN America and CNBC should be able to attract lots of advertising – a huge advantage over Fox News in prime-time as marketers are deserting Tucker Carlson due to his often-controversial comments. Expect lots of car, pharmaceutical, and insurance ads with Flo and Jamie and yes, that ostrich.