Detroit’s WWJ-TV gets back in the news game

CBS-owned station was one of only two Big 3 network affiliates in the 50 largest markets without a local news operation

After nearly twenty years without local news, WWJ-TV is back in the business, launching a new hyper-local effort in late summer/early fall of 2022 with the operation being branded as CBS News Detroit. Reflecting the sign of the times, streaming is taking the lead as a new local CBSN news around-the-clock channel is also being planned, airing original content from 4 a.m. to 11:35 p.m. daily. Local versions of CBSN have launched at almost all CBS-owned stations, including CBS 2 (WBBM-TV) here in Chicago, known as CBSN Chicago.  

WWJ is joining the more established news operations in the Motor City: Fox-owned WJBK-TV, Scripps ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV; and news ratings leader WDIV, the Graham Media-owned NBC station who once had the WWJ calls until 1978. 

“This is a landmark moment in the history of our station and, for that matter, local news,” said Brian Waston, who is vice president and general manager of WWJ and sister station WKBD, a CW affiliate. “I don’t believe there is another station in a large market like ours that has done anything like this, so we are excited to help write a bold new chapter in the history of local news. My colleagues and I are deeply grateful to Wendy McMahon, [CBS stations president] Adrienne Roark and everyone else on the CBS News and Stations and ViacomCBS leadership teams for their incredible support and belief in our mission.”

Waston pitched the idea to McMahon, who is president and co-head of CBS News And Stations and embarked on boosting the network-owned stations’ profile after years of neglect from previous CBS bosses. Earlier this year, McMahon hired former WGN-TV news director Jennifer Lyons to become vice president and general manager of CBS 2. 

The plan is to add 40 hours of news on the linear TV station a week to start with local news in key daytime, early fringe, and 11 p.m. dayparts. Currently, those time slots are occupied by syndicated programming such as 25 Words or Less, The Drew Barrymore Show, Dr. Phil, Family Feud, and off-network The Big Bang Theory. CBS plans to hire a full staff of journalists, producers, camera crews and a news director to have a presence around Detroit and at the Michigan State Capital in Lansing. 

There is “local” news on WKBD at 10 p.m., but it’s produced at out-of-town CBS-owned station. It’s likely to be replaced by the new CBS News Detroit effort. 

The current WWJ-TV came into existence when CBS agreed to buy WGPR-TV Channel 62 in December 1994, a low-rated, signal-challenged UHF independent known as the first Black-owned TV station in the country through the International Free Masons. CBS was ousted from its longtime home at WJBK seven months earlier after then-owner New World and Fox shocked the TV world by agreeing to flip their Big 3 network affiliations in twelve markets with CBS faring the worst seeing several stations also being forced onto UHF stations.

CBS officially took over the station a year later and in 1999, became a duopoly partner with WKBD (which previously held the Fox affiliation) when their owner Viacom bought CBS, who originally spun off from the network in 1971, separated in 2005 and re-merged in 2019

In an unusual arrangement, WKBD as a UPN station produced newscasts for WWJ starting in 2001, but WKBD’s news operation was shuttered at the end of 2002 after more than twenty years in operation. In 2009, WWJ produced a morning newscast in conjunction with the Detroit Free Press and its then-radio sister station, WWJ-AM (now owned by Audacy.) It too was unsuccessful, ending after three years. 

CBS and WWJ-TV certainly picked the right time to get into the news business as stations across the country are gearing up to receive tons of revenue from political advertising as heated congressional and gubernatorial races are up for grabs next year with the House and Senate possibly shifting back to the GOP. Given Michigan is a swing state, there’ll be tons of political advertising spent and you can’t blame CBS for wanting to be a part of the windfall. 

WWJ’s return to news leaves Sinclair-owned ABC affiliate KDNL-TV in St. Louis as the only Big 3 network affiliate without a news operation in a top fifty market. A former independent and Fox affiliate, KDNL was also involved in the Fox-New World swap of 1994, losing their network affiliation to KTVI as their news operation shuttered in 2001 after only six years in existence. 

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