This just in: Local news trumps reruns

KRON-TV San Francisco to dump Dr. Phil?

It looks like these days viewers prefer the corruption, depression, politics, and crime to escapist fare.

It what could be yet another blow to the syndication business, a story by Bloomberg News suggests local stations are dumping entertainment fare to air more local news especially in major markets.

This comes as the fight for time periods are escalating in the light of several recent cancellations, and many stations are filling those vacant time slots with local news, or other programming. Local stations have lost faith in syndicated programming, thanks to a glut of daytime court shows, and a lack of quality off-network sitcoms.

Recent examples include Fox-owned WJBK-TV moving Seinfeld repeats to 11:30 p.m. in favor of re-establishing an 11 p.m. newscast. The last time WJBK aired an 11 p.m. newscast was in 1994, when it was still a CBS affiliate.

Other stations have decided to take the national network newscasts. WGN-TV here in Chicago added a 5:30 p.m. last September while sister station KTLA-TV in Los Angeles added a 6:30 p.m. newscast in January. Fox affiliate WXIX-TV in Cincinnati added a 6:30 p.m. last September as well.

In Chicago, the early-fringe news race could get crowded this fall if Fox-owned WFLD-TV adds a 5 p.m. show, which has been in the works for the last few years.

The reasons? Local news cost less to produce than acquiring syndicated programming, especially off-network sitcoms. And speaking of those, they have become more and more scarce as networks have filled their prime-time schedules with more reality shows and dramas. And most existing off-net sitcoms have shared cable/broadcast windows. For example, TBS holds the rights to many popular off-net sitcoms, including Friends, Seinfeld, and Family Guy – all of which drain rating points from broadcasters airing the same programming.

More importantly, stations get to keep all their ad inventory during local news – whereas in most syndicated programming, they have to give up anywhere from three and-a-half to eight minutes of ad time to syndicators for them to sell to national advertisers for barter purposes, not counting fee spots.

And given the way the world is today, viewers want to be more informed on issues that effect them the most, including the recession. Politics is another fueling factor, with interest still sky high – even in an non-election year. Chicago’s top-rated radio stations are AM outlets who are either news, talk, or both.

And much like you can get your music anywhere, anytime these days – television programming is now readily available on demand on the Internet, DVDs, and other sources – rendering “appointment TV” obsolete.

Despite local news’ reputation for crime, violence and other “it bleeds, it leads” content, demand among advertisers is still high- since local news is basically DVR-proof.

And the article points out many stations’ local newscasts draw higher ratings than most prime-time programs. This is true for ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago at 10 p.m., whose top-rated newscast often outdraw ABC shows like Lost and Life on Mars.

The same holds true for NBC affiliates WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee and KSDK-TV in St. Louis, whose strong news operations hasn’t really been affected by NBC’s prime-time woes (though KSDK has often been beat at 10 p.m. by rival CBS affilaite KMOV.)

Meanwhile, independent KRON-TV in San Francisco could drop Dr. Phil from its schedule when the program’s contract expires in the next three years, according to the station manager, who was quoted in the article. This isn’t a surprise, given the fragile condition of its owner (Young Broadcasting, who recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.) Currently, Dr. Phil runs at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays.

Many in the industry feel there is still a great need for quality syndicated programming. But the key word is quality. It is missing from syndicated programming these days. It seems to be missing from local news as well.

Extra credit: Here are the recent local news ratings for Kansas City, pretty much a snapshot of how the local television business is these days. At 4 p.m., CBS affiliate KCTV’s news is in striking distance of ABC affiliate’s KMBC-TV airings of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which is still number one in its time period, but not as dominant. Despite a declining Ellen as a lead-in, KCTV was up in all afternoon and early-evening time slots, while KMBC slipped in every one of them.

Meanwhile slipping ratings for Fox affiliate WDAF-TV’s court shows and American Idol are taking a toll on the station’s newscasts.

The lesson learned here is: while some stations aren’t really dependent on lead-ins, others are – and when the lead-in tanks, so does the station’s newscast.