Tribune and The CW: Culture Clash?

While the Tribune Co. is struggling with the antics of CEO Randy Michaels and Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its TV division is actually taking care of its own business – despite the struggles of The CW – the network which thirteen of its stations (including WPIX in New York, KTLA in Los Angeles and WGN-TV in Chicago) are aligned with, in this spot-on Broadcasting & Cable article.

Many Tribune stations feel their syndicated lineups – featuring fare like Live With Regis & Kelly, Jerry Springer, and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? and their local newscasts and sporting events – are incompatible with the young female-skewing CW programming, which is generating buzz and setting trends (e.g. landing on magazine covers), but failing to generate the ratings or revenue for local stations – or the lead-in numbers for its 9 or 10 p.m. newscasts. (The CW was formed by the merger of WB and UPN in 2006.)

Many station execs are griping that the CW programming is, according to B&C, “too hip for the room” (and you thought NBC affiliates have problems.)

Meanwhile, Tribune outlets have been taking care of their own business in other dayparts – and doing a good job of it in many cases.

Tribune stations in daytime – notably WPIX and KTLA – has done well, thanks to NBC Universal’s trio of raunchy talk shows (Maury, Jerry Springer, and Steve Wilkos.) The shows are up from year-ago time period shares across the board in key female demos.

Of course, not all three shows air on all Tribune stations. In Chicago, Wilkos airs on Weigel’s WCIU (where, like its Tribune counterparts, was up in key female demos last month), and Jerry Springer airs on Fox’s WPWR-TV (but is moving to WCIU this fall.) WGN airs Disney’s Live With Regis & Kelly and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire instead, but does air Maury at 2 p.m.

In St. Louis, Springer airs on Tribune’s KPLR-TV, but Maury airs on Sinclair’s ABC affiliate, KDNL-TV while My Network TV affiliate WRBU-TV has the rights to Wilkos. In Sacramento, Tribune’s KTXL (Fox) only airs Wilkos. (Hearst’s KQCA-TV airs the other two NBCU talk shows.)

Meanwhile, Tribune’s stations in access and late fringe are doing very well with Two And A Half Men and Family Guy, which they recently renewed for a second cycle. In October 2009 on WGN, Men beat The Simpsons in households by 56% in rating at 6 p.m. and had a whopping 118% advantage over the animated sitcom at 10:30 p.m.

But when CW network fare begins, it is very clear viewers flee. In October 2009 [1], WGN averaged a 1.8/3 from 7-9 p.m. compared to a 2.5/5 for Family Guy at 6:30 p.m. On WPIX, CW programming earned an identical 1.8/3  compared to a 1.9/3- lead-in from Family Guy, and KTLA had  1.5/2 in prime with Men providing a 2.9/5 lead-in – a 48% drop.

Washington D.C.’s WBDC prime-time average in October was  1.1/2 compared to 2.0/4 for Men at 7:30 p.m., while in Dallas, KDAF had a 1.4/2 in prime compared to Men’s 2.6/5 at 6:30 p.m. – a 46% drop.

The weak CW lead-ins have hurt Tribune’s late newscasts in some markets – notably in New York and Los Angeles, where the Fox O&O enjoys a hefty lead-in advantage from Fox prime-time programming containing blockbusters like House and American Idol. But in Chicago, WGN has dominated over WFLD in the 9 p.m. news ratings, despite the weak CW lead-ins.

Two Tribune stations have remedied this problem somewhat by moving their newscasts to 7 p.m:  KPLR in St. Louis and KWGN-TV has done so, with CW programming airing at 8 p.m. (both stations are in local marketing agreements with Local TV’s Fox affiliates in those markets.)

Tribune is hoping CW develops programming that attracts a more broader audience in prime-time and more importantly, to its newscasts. The 18-34 crowd who watches CW programs in prime-time usually don’t hang around for the older-skewing newscasts that follow, instead seeking out fare on the Big 3 networks or on basic cable like Project Runway and The Real Housewives.

CW is doing just that, with development deals in place with projects from Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere, two former Gilmore Girls producers, and a remake of popular 1990’s cable drama Le Femme Nikita.

Despite these hurdles, don’t look for Tribune to dump CW anytime soon – they still have six years left to go on their contract. Plus, despite the weak ratings, an identity sells with advertisers and stockholders – believe it or not, there’s more value to these stations with a CW identity than without one. But with Tribune owning CW affiliates in four of the top five markets – their influence can carry some weight. And if ratings don’t improve soon, that weight will have to be thrown around.

[1] Source: Katz MultiDayGrids and Nielsen Media Research, October 2009.