WGN signs Mark Suppelsa to take on Katie, Brian, and Charlie

For the first time ever in Chicago, viewers will have a real option to the network evening newscasts.

As expected, Tribune-owned WGN-TV has signed former WMAQ-TV and WFLD-TV Mark Suppelsa, renewed the contract of longtime veteran Steve Sanders and is expanding the station’s newscasts.

Suppelsa left Fox-owned WFLD in a contract dispute a few months ago and was slated to sign with WGN after his contract with WFLD and the period for the station to match any offer a competitor brought on expired .

Supplesa will now co-anchor alongside Allison Payne at 9 p.m. as well as a new half-hour 5:30 p.m. newscast, while Steve Sanders will join Micah Materre in an expanded midday newscast, running from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The added hour now brings the total number of hours a day WGN programs with news to seven.

The move come as more and more stations are expanding to take on the national newscasts. WGN-TV’s sister station in Denver (KWGN-TV) launches a new 5:30 p.m. newscast today, while Raycom’s Fox affiliate in Cincinnati (WXIX-TV) launches a new 6:30 p.m. newscast next month to take on Katie, Brian, and Charlie in that market. Several Fox O&O’s in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and other places already have early evening newscasts.

Analysis: WGN’s move comes as just another example of how rapidly the broadcast environment for local stations is changing.

Traditionally, non-traditional affiliates (Fox, UPN, WB, and independent stations) targeted younger viewers from 5 to 7 p.m. with off-network sitcoms, leading out of kids’ animation fare.

But since the beginning of the decade, stations began bailing out of kids’ animation altogether and the off-network sitcom market has nearly dried up, with the networks preferring to air reality shows over sitcoms in the last few years, making fewer product available. Today’s younger viewers have either migrated to cable in the late afternoon (early fringe) and early evening (prime access) hours, or aren’t watching TV at all.

Meanwhile, the demand for news has never been greater, with several stories (Obama’s presidential bid, Chicago’s run for the Olympics, the economy, etc.) generating plenty interest. Expanding local news to meet the demand makes financial sense, as targeting the older demos (18-49’s and 25-54s) have become more attractive than paying for and airing C-level off-network sitcoms that won’t draw viewers and earns little revenue. Ratings for local newscasts in Chicago have remained constant, despite the growing number of choices available in the marketplace (on the other hand, some markets like St. Louis have seen local news ratings decrease for years, with ABC affiliate KDNL-TV bailing out several years ago.)

Snapping up Mark Suppelsa was a smart move for WGN, and starting a 5:30 p.m. newscast was an even smarter one. As for its’ crosstown competitor, WFLD-TV considered starting a dinner-hour newscast but never did, preferring to stick with syndicated repeats of The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. Instead, it expanded Good Day Chicago an hour to 10 a.m. and added a 10 p.m newscast.

Despite popular Fox prime-time lead-ins, the WFLD newscast Suppelsa was on has never capitalized, as the station’s 9 p.m. newscast has floundered for years. WGN is one of the very few CW affiliates in the country to beat a Fox station at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., given the weak lead-ins from its network. Does the ratings reversal say more about WFLD’s lackluster news operation, or The CW’s weak prime-time lineup? Both.

I think WGN will do well enough to finish second behind ABC’s Charlie Gibson and beat Brian Williams and Katie Couric, particularly with the latter having trouble finding an audience in Chicago and elsewhere. WGN’s 5:30 p.m. newscast is likely to be sandwiched between sitcoms (According to Jim and Two and a Half Men), but you’ve got to start somewhere. My prediction is WGN’s 5:30 p.m. newscast will become a 5 p.m. newscast for a full hour within two years.