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Only 10 minutes to air time, but Newschannel 8’s cavernous news room is nearly deserted, and producer Katya Wright is doing her worst Holly Hunter impersonation: Unlike Hunter’s frenetic character in Broadcast News, the 23-year-old Wright, a mere 10-month veteran of the TV news wars, looks so relaxed that you almost want to feel for a pulse.
But if Wright doesn’t fit the TV-news stereotype, neither does the operation that employs her. Tucked away in a Springfield industrial park 15 long miles from downtown D.C., Newschannel 8 has spent the last two years trying to rewrite the sacrosanct, decades-old rules of television journalism. Gone are the high-paid anchors, the expensive union salaries, and the blood-and-guts news diet on which other stations exist. Instead of beaming hour-long evening packages to viewers, News 8 offers news round-the-clock to the subscribers of eight area cable systems. Local stories that the city’s four over-the-air stations shun—ribbon cuttings, grade-school mentor programs, police academy graduation ceremonies—are a staple of the Newschannel 8 lineup. While the competition broadcasts regional news to the entire area, News 8 cablecasts specially tailored reports to viewers in the District, Virginia, and Maryland. For instance, Virginia House of Delegate races are banished from District TV screens; Maryland viewers have Gov. William Donald Schaefer all to themselves; D.C.’s murder count remains a mystery outside the Beltway.
It’s an entirely novel approach to television news, and so far, one that puzzles Washington-area cable subscribers. “It’s still part of a gradual education process,” says News Director Wayne Lynch. “The public has a sense that we’re a better provider of local news that’s close to home, but they’re not yet aware how we target newscasts for different zones. It may take several more years for us to crystallize our role.”
Whether Newschannel 8 can survive long enough to educate the public and change their viewing habits is the question facing Lynch and his news-gathering troops. Launched in October 1991 by Joe Allbritton, the near-reclusive chairman of Riggs National Bank and owner of WJLA-TV (Channel 7), Newschannel 8 is one of six ventures across the country that have adopted the Cable News Network (CNN) model on a local level. Only one of these channels is believed to be approaching profitability, and so far, Allbritton’s $20 million gamble isn’t even close. But the cable-news pioneer shows no signs of losing patience, and management seems confident that News 8 can break into the black.
“It’s a long pull to profitability or break-even—five years plus,” says Newschannel 8 President John Hillis. “We’re a little behind, but we’ve got a good shot at making it up.”
Long shot might be more accurate. Although most of the region is wired to receive cable, fewer than 60 percent of those households able to subscribe have chosen to do so; as a result, the broadcast competition reaches far more viewers. The local advertising community is neither knowledgeable nor enthusiastic about cable TV, and has continued to spend its budgets on over-the-air TV and other media. News 8’s programming is less polished than that of its broadcast counterparts, so viewers may dismiss it as an inferior knockoff.
But if Newschannel 8 can mount even a slender challenge to Washington’s broadcast establishment, it will be positioned to prosper. Interactive TV and other emerging technologies promise to transform television news: Some of the local and network newscasts are expected to eventually go dark, while niche alternatives like all-news cable could emerge as increasingly important players.
None of this concerns Wright. She’s only interested in the half-hour newscast that she has assembled over the last four hours, and minutes before the 9 a.m. start, she settles into her perch in the control room. Behind her, a technician planted at a touch-screen computer operates three robotically controlled cameras on the studio floor. Across the control room, another young woman works the sound board. “Ten seconds,” the director announces, and anchor Dave Lucas puts aside his hairbrush and puts on his game face. Cue the music. Stand by to roll tape. Medium camera shot to start.
The broadcast goes by with just a few minor glitches: Lucas falls behind the TelePrompTer script during one story, and leaves out a few facts to catch up; the video that’s supposed to accompany a crime-related piece fails to appear. Viewers are undoubtedly oblivious to both blunders, but Lucas is swearing off-camera and Wright barks orders into her microphone: “Next time we say “crime scene,’ let’s have the crime scene.”
After the broadcast, Wright critiques the production and ruminates about her job: She’s happy to work here; landing this position right out of college was a lucky break; the money isn’t very good, but she’s gaining experience.
In fact, after less than a year on the job, Wright already seems adept: All in all, the newscast was smooth and professional-looking. She was calm before the program and controlled throughout. There were no major complications. How would more time on the job benefit her?
Experience helps you deal with crises, she says. She’s talking about her newscast, but she might as well be describing the monumental challenge the entire operation faces as it continues to try to carve out a place in Washington’s already crowded news market.
“When things crash,” she says, “you need presence of mind.”
Watching Newschannel 8 for the first time is a little like coming to work Monday morning and seeing a co-worker who shaved off his mustache over the weekend. You know something is different, but it takes a lot of staring and speculating to figure out what.
Maybe the difference is merely cosmetic. At News 8, the cameras don’t focus as tightly on the anchors as other stations, so the newscasters look like real people instead of broadcast gods. The set doesn’t appear to have been built of Italian marble like WUSA-TV’s (Channel 9). The weather reports don’t feature video-game-quality graphics or time-lapse shots of nimbus clouds like WRC-TV’s (Channel 4) newscast. Some of News 8’s reporters look like college interns. Instead of Hollywood-quality commercials for brokerage houses and electronics manufacturers, there are home-video-style spots for obscure local restaurants and neighborhood auto-body shops. News, weather, and sports are crammed into 30-minute blocks that are sometimes repeated for three hours, so tune in later and it’s déjà vu all over and over and over again.
Or maybe what’s different is the delivery. Standard over-the-air TV news unfolds like a series of two-minute documentaries, with anchors offering the introductions and reporters talking over the seamless footage before treating us to full-face stand-ups. News 8, however, is more like video vérité: The delivery is rapid-fire, with just enough video and narration to give you the most noteworthy facts—often without the reporter appearing at all. With so much time to fill, however, News 8 can also let a story go on forever: During last March’s blizzard, the channel’s dozen camera crews offered more than six consecutive hours of live coverage from seemingly every road in the region. But all that available time has a downside: In-studio interviews sometimes seem never-ending.
Another disparity is that Newschannel 8 focuses more on pure news and less on entertainment than other news operations. When an advocacy group called a press conference recently to announce the publication of a report listing unsafe toys, WTTG-TV (Channel 5) featured video of a weeping mother whose child died after swallowing a plaything; by comparison, News 8’s report included short clips of potentially unsafe products and information on ordering the group’s report. Murder and mayhem don’t automatically lead evening newscasts; you’ll see the yellow police-tape of crime scenes, but blood on the sidewalk and chalk outlines of corpses are left to the competition.
“We’ve tried thematically not to be sensational,” says Lynch. “We don’t like to be lurid or blow things out of proportion or dwell on the constant repetition of crime….We absolutely tell our producers and reporters to take the high road and find an angle that’s more useful and explanatory.”
That distinguishes News 8 from the competition, but watch the channel long enough and you’ll realize that what really sets it apart is not the approach to news or the pres entation, but the attention to local events—the sort of mundane stories usually found in community newspapers, not TV newscasts.
“I grew up in the area,” says Supervising Producer Alex Likowski. “My mother was a civic activist in Greenbelt. She always complained that if the other stations did a story about the town, they got the names wrong or they got the facts wrong. Those stations go to Greenbelt if someone gets shot, but if the city has an election, they don’t talk about it. We do. That’s the difference.”
Newschannel 8 was built on the premise that over-the-air stations can’t—or won’t—cover those local elections, providing anideal opportunity to reach dissatisfied viewers with an alternative. We may all be residents of a global village, united by satellite signals, but people probably still care most about what’s happening in their own back yards. The Washington Post can cover the hell out the nation and the region, but the goings-on in our neighborhoods are only detailed in newsletters like the Glover Park Gazette and the Sweet and Sour News, distributed to residents in the Cherrydale section of Arlington.
In the same way, Newschannel 8 hopes to capitalize on this appetite for community news by focusing more narrowly on community events and by providing District, Maryland, and Virginia cable subscribers with “zoned” newscasts.
This “narrowcasting” formula makes sense, but it can be unsettling for a public accustomed to the Gordon and Maureen show.
“Part of the joy of TV the last five years is the discovery of the new,” says Douglas Gomery, a professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism. “It’s a period not unlike the 1950s, when the medium is trying to figure out what it is. This is talk radio plus CNN plus the local angle. It’s not a complicated formula, but we’ll see how it plays out.”
So far, it’s playing OK. Area cable companies that include Newschannel 8 in their lineups say they’re satisfied with the programming, and some have asked News 8 to report even more local stories in their jurisdictions. Hillis claims that viewership is high after midnight, which suggests that there’s an audience for local news outside the traditional hours. News 8’s morning traffic reports are by far the city’s best, thanks to live shots from Virginia Department of Transportation roadside cameras on I-395, the Beltway, and Route 66 that let viewers see how bad the backups are before they begin their commutes. Even without Channel 4’s sky-cam or other toys, News 8’s evening weathercaster, Michelle Leigh, is more compelling than Bob Ryan et al. She delivers the forecast with such high energy that you have to step back from the set for fear that she might blow the glass right out of the box. Glenn Harris, the longtime voice of Howard University sports, is either the city’s only sportscaster who knows anything about local ball or the only one paying any attention.
The best change wrought by Newschannel 8 is making its journalists less conspicuous. Viewers are spared staged cutaway shots of reporters looking ponderously at their notes, or doing full-face, empathetic monologues, or somehow injecting themselves into the story. This channel pays more attention to the story than to the personality reporting it.
Another bonus is that the narration is delivered in a normal voice, rather than in that halting singsong that’s apparently supposed to convey the reporter’s feelings. For once, we’re spared the theatrics of Channel 4’s Pat Collins and his hushed, somber-faced reports from area crime scenes that make clear his anguish and concern.
But after two years of tinkering with the format, Newschannel 8’s mission is still unfocused: Although the service bills itself as the metro area’s “community news source,” the broadcasts often include national and international stories that play like video rip-and-read. The delivery is lower-key and less polished than those of the star-studded over-the-air operations, but the anchors still engage in that same mindless guffawing—often to wretched excess.
Hillis describes Newschannel 8 as a “breaking-news service,” but editorial judgment is sometimes questionable. One recent Friday, for example, WTOP-AM (1500) first reported before 11 a.m. that the George Washington Parkway was closed in both directions near National Airport because of a gas leak. News 8 gave the story only a brief mention after noon, then proceeded to rebroadcast Thursday’s Nightline—by then a 12-hour-old assessment of the California brush fires. By contrast, Channel 9 was on the scene at noon with a live report of the traffic nightmare.
That recent decision to rebroadcast Nightline, World News Tonight, and other ABC network news programs also is questionable. Hillis says it offers a “more meaningful choice” for area cable subscribers, but the hour devoted to an encore of a newsmagazine such as Day One would be better spent on interviews with local activists, politicians, or newsmakers—maybe even an hour of chatter with local blatherer Mark Plotkin. If News 8 truly wants to be the source of local news, the channel ought to hammer away at that objective, not back away from it.
“In my view, they further distorted their mission by taking on repeats of ABC news shows,” says Ralph Malvik, executive director of nonprofit Montgomery Community Television, which produces a daily, half-hour news report for Montgomery County residents called Cable News 21. “There are advantages to viewers with this “time shifting,’ but by doing this, they’re getting their image out of focus.”
News Director Lynch says the network programming simply enhances an otherwise all-local news schedule—providing a second chance for a busy TV audience to catch national news. But cable subscribers already receive CNN and plenty of other news options, and uninitiated viewers complain that this mix of national and local programming is confusing: They see the Newschannel 8 logo on the screen, they’re sucked into an interesting—and presumably local—news story, and two minutes later they learn they’ve been watching an ABC network newcast.
“TV used to be easy to use,” says Gomery, who sympathizes with News 8’s dilemma. “You turned it on, you had three choices, four with PBS, maybe five with an independ ent. There was no surfing or grazing. Today, the number of choices is extraordinary. An analogy would be that it takes a while to figure out what magazines you want to read. Radio is the same way—as formats change, people switch from one station to the other. We never associate learning with TV. The idiot-box notion of TV is a past metaphor. The possibilities with cable, VCRs, and over-the-air TV are intimidating.
“I think what’s happening now with Newschannel 8 is that people are discovering it. They’re learning how it fits into what they want for news. But it’s not an instant learning curve.”
In the beginning, there was CNN, and it was not very good.
The all-news cable channel—launched in June 1980 with $50 million—was a precarious experiment that its audacious creator predicted would make even the invention of the printing press look insignificant by comparison. “It will be the greatest achievement in the history of journalism,” Ted Turner bragged. “In five years, we’ll be in half the homes in the country and we’ll be the single most powerful news entity in America.”
Turner’s prophecies proved to be wild hyperbole, but he did manage to radically transform the landscape of television journalism: Instead of being forced to tune in during traditional broadcast-news hours, TV viewers could wander in and out of an endless news loop. Just as important, Turner made the news—rather than the newscasters—the centerpiece of his operation.
That was no small change. TV news was only a quarter-century old when CNN dared to compete, but broadcasters had long since discovered their best recipe for success: The public not only wanted information, they wanted to relate personally to the newscasters. “People watch TV news because they develop loyalties to anchors,” says Phyllis Kaniss, author of Making Local News. “People form attachments to local anchors; they create a rapport with those anchors.”
As broadcast news devolved into a high-stakes quest for ratings, cultivating that rapport took precedence. The result was newscasts that relied less on hard news and more on entertainment, invariably served up by a happy-talking group of telegenic personalities who were on your side or the team to watch. And the strategy worked: People tuned in the same local news each evening, then the same national newscast. No one switched channels. It was lucrative brand loyalty in a 19-inch box.
Turner vowed to change the equation, and within a year of CNN’s inauspicious debut, the channel was being hailed as an entirely credible news operation and the salvation of a cable industry lacking serious and original programming. The ratings were low by network standards—and in fact have remained so to this day—but media analysts nonetheless became bullish, and once-reluctant national advertisers signed lucrative multiyear contracts. As the decade progressed, CNN capitalized on the wiring of the nation and the proliferation of videotape, lighter cameras, and satellite transmission to secure a prominent place within the broadcast news community.
A decade later, a small group of upstarts decided that if CNN could make money delivering an endless stream of news to an interested national audience, they could do the same thing locally. Allbritton believed the all-news concept was a natural for Washington, and after reportedly studying the idea for two years, he followed Turner’s lead.
But Allbritton was typically low-key about his gamble. Unlike the flamboyant, outspoken Turner, who promised to kiss a reporter’s ass in Macy’s window if he was wrong about the viability of CNN, the media-shy Allbritton has refused to speak publicly about his all-news venture—and, in fact, about nearly everything else. Like Turner, though, Allbritton has built a business empire that has made him among the nation’s richest individuals. In addition to holdings that have included Texas banks, an insurance company, and a chain of California mortuaries, Allbritton was at one time the owner of WMAL-AM and of the Washington Star, which he sold in 1978 to Time Inc. Today, Channel 7 is only one of his five network-affiliated broadcast TV stations.
Unfortunately, Allbritton established News channel 8 just as Riggs Bank was being decimated by a reported $120 million in bad real-estate loans. Washingtonian magazine recently estimated Allbritton’s net worth at $300 million, but the nation’s five other local cable-news operations are being bankrolled by wealthier companies with more media expertise. Media giant Time Warner is behind Manhattan’s NY1, for example. The Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, owns the ChicagoLand cable channel. The Boston area’s New England Cable News is co-owned by Hearst, the newspaper publisher, and Continental Cablevision, which owns many of the Boston-area cable systems.
Allbritton lent Newschannel 8’s parent company, Allnewsco, $20 million for the start-up. Industry sources estimate that the tab for cameras and other equipment was probably $10 million plus, so Allbritton needed to cut corners if he was going to make the venture work. The headquarters were placed in a Springfield warehouse. Following Turner’s example, Newschannel 8 hired lower-wage, nonunion help. (A camera man at a local network affiliate, for example, earns about $60,000—$100,000 or more with overtime—while competitors estimate that News 8 camera operators are paid about half that.) Producers were hired right out of college. Reporters and anchors were recruited from smaller markets and lured here with the promise of being seen in Washington—not with big paychecks.
Even this pared-down budget hasn’t been lean enough, though, because the financial picture is still bleak. Cable systems were offered the news service gratis for three years. (After that, some cable operators will likely pay a monthly amount per subscriber to receive News 8; other negotiated deals might involve the sale of News 8’s advertising time rather than payment of subscriber fees. Neither News 8 officials nor cable systems will comment.) So far, the only revenues have come from the sale of advertising time and meager video production work performed for corporate clients. But the region’s economic recession left News 8 with a drought of ad revenues the first year, and after 12 months of operation, Allbritton reportedly loaned the struggling venture another $1.5 million. “The path that we thought would be uphill turned out to be a sheer cliff,” Hillis told the trade magazine Cablevision last year.
A llbritton may be able to take some comfort in the fact that he’s not alone in his struggle. Long Island’s News 12—the nation’s first local all-news cable channel—is the only one close to turning a profit (some believe it already has done so). Financial analysts have paid almost no attention to these ventures, in part because there are still too few of them to have had any real impact in the marketplace. “I don’t know whether they’ll be successful,” says Jessica Reif, who follows cable and other media at New York’s Oppenheimer and Co. “They’re too much in the start-up mode.”
What may ultimately heighten the prominence of these all-news channels is more of them, and there are plenty on the way. Coming soon: local or regional news channels in the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, and elsewhere.
“There is a huge place in American communications for an all-news channel, simply because people want to be part of theircommunity and want to know about their community,” says Al Primo, whose Connecticut-based company, Primo Newservice, provides news training to cable services. “A regional channel can concentrate on hyperlocal stories. Where else can you see your sons and daughters in school graduation ceremonies?”
All-news channels also stand to capitalize on such potentially lucrative new technologies as “video on demand,” an interactive system that transforms passive viewers into TV programmers.
About 15 major cable, telephone, computer, and communications companies—including Bell Atlantic—have either announced or started field trials of video-on-demand, which can deliver virtually any form of digital information by telephone, cable, or satellite. Unlike traditional pay-per-view services, video-on-demand lets you see what you want, when you want to see it.
One of the more ambitious tests will be conducted next year by Rochester Telephone and the California-based USA Video Corp. In this six-month trial, New York state consumers will be able to call up on their TV screens menus offering everything from new and classic movies to sports programming and interactive video games. Choose a movie, for example, and a box atop the TV—a digital video receiver (DVR)—will dial into a video file server and order the program. Within three minutes, the digitized signals will be downloaded via cable or phone lines to the DVR, where they will be restored to the original audio and video signals and sent to the TV set. For the next 24 hours, subscribers will be able to fast-forward through the film, “rewind” it, and watch it multiple times. The movie is then automatically purged from the TV and a bill for the “rental” is sent to the subscriber at the end of the month.
Edwin Molina, USA Video senior vice president for marketing, says the most obvious use of video-on-demand is for entertainment programming. But he adds that his company has been talking to CNN, which is working on the development of a system whereby news programming could be sent to the video file server. Viewers in search of international stories would be able to order them; if you want news from your home state or American League baseball highlights, you can request that, too. “If you want to see footage of the Gulf War,” says Molina, “you can.”
The possibilities of video-on-demandhaven’t been lost on Hillis, who says he’s considered a supplemental service that would enable area viewers to create their own individually tailored newscasts from on-screen menus. “Maybe you offer five-second segments,” he says. “Maybe you offer 20-second or two-minute segments.”
“We have an information-gathering resource, and we’ll try to package it in as many ways as possible,” he adds.
This might reap income that hadn’t been considered when Newschannel 8’s business plan was drafted, but repackaging the news a dozen different ways won’t do enough by itself to keep the operation afloat; as Hillis admits, News 8 will ultimately live or die by its ability to bring in advertising.
So far, its vital signs are faint.
In October 1992, Newschannel 8 celebrated its one-year anniversary with a staff party. Hillis was pleased with the channel’s evolution and made that clear to the staff: News 8 was far from profitable, but revenues were on the rise and the outlook was encouraging. Two weeks later, much of the advertising sales staff, including the two top managers, were laid off. The reason, according to one former employee: The department was a financial drain that News 8 officials said they could no longer afford.
On paper, Newschannel 8 looks like a good deal for advertisers. Its programming is available to more than 725,000 homes on eight area cable systems, and by late ’94, that will climb to 850,000 homes on 13 systems. Washington is the nation’s eighth-largest television market, and its demographics are upscale. Every cable system carrying News 8 has agreed to locate it on Channel 8—a desirable spot on the converter box that’s easy for viewers to find. The region is home to hordes of news junkies—the sort of affluent, educated people that advertisers are eager to reach. Advertisers can target their audiences on News 8 by airing their commercials in one, two, or three coverage zones. By most measures, Newschannel 8 is a can’t-miss proposition.
But the service has so far been off-target, with revenues far short of supporting the 130-person staff. “There may not have been a worse time to launch an advertiser-supported service,” says Hillis. “We timed the bottom of the recession very well.”
The bum economy hasn’t been the only obstacle in Hillis’ way, though. Not long after News 8 debuted, for example, Channel 9 set out to insure that the newcomer wouldn’t steal away ad dollars. “Channel 9 sent out pieces to all advertisers on a monthly basis why they shouldn’t buy us,” says a former News 8 ad rep. “It started as a full page, but after a year it got down to a paragraph. They took us as a threat.”
Hillis once likened Channel 9’s broadside to “aiming a howitzer at a gnat.”
The city’s advertising agencies also were less than congenial. “Media buyers have a problem really evaluating cable,” admits a buyer at a local agency. “A lot of our clients want to know where and how their ad dollars are being spent. Unlike the ’80s, they’re being conservative with their dollars. Now they want to see everything—how many people you’re reaching with TV, radio, and cable.”
Other media find it easy to quantify those numbers for advertisers, but not so for cable. Newspapers are audited regularly by independent research firms, and papers’ sales literature details circulation figures and demographic information about the readers. Advertisers use these numbers to decide whether a paper can reach appropriate audiences. The paper’s advertising rate card makes it simple to determine the cost of reaching 1,000 readers—an industry standard known simply as the “CPM.”
Similarly, television stations use numbers calculated by the A.C. Nielsen Co. research firm to quantify audience size and composition. By taking statistical samples of area households, Nielsen estimates the number of homes tuned to a program. These numbers, which TV stations pay Nielsen to calculate, are expressed as “ratings.” TV stations use the ratings and accompanying demographic information to show potential advertisers how many people they can expect to reach.
Cable channels have a harder time quantifying their audiences. Nielsen measures viewership in a total of 132 Washington-area homes. Since only about 58 percent of the region is wired for cable, it’s likely that the cable ratings are based on fewer than 100 homes. As a result, a single individual’s shift in one of those Nielsen households can make a dramatic difference in the ratings.
“Every time someone turns off, it’s an earthquake for us,” says Hillis.
The cable industry would like Nielsen to increase the size of its sample survey so that cable services can get more detailed and accurate information about their audiences. A Nielsen spokesperson says that increasing the sample size would be expensive for the company, which is true. But another reason Nielsen resists is that the current system serves the interests of its mass-market broadcast clients, who may pay five times more than cable clients for ratings information.
Without more complete data, however, Newschannel 8’s sales force can only offer a limited profile of its viewers—their average age is 42; 55 percent are male; 60 percent have lived here at least 10 years. Sales reps can tell advertisers what a great idea Newschannel 8 is—that news programs attract upscale demographics; that in this news-hungry town, Newschannel 8 is reaching a quality audience; that cable is the future of TV. In short, they’re selling a concept, not hard numbers.
And that’s often not good enough. “The problem on the agency end—and it’s a problem with many in this area—is that the larger agencies are full of media buyers who have been doing this for years and won’t look to the future,” says a former News 8 salesperson. “The media community is full of a lot of progressive-type buyers, but also the old, traditional thinkers who are hard to convince of new concepts because they were trained over the last 20 years to buy rating points—not something new like this.” “Agency buyers were intimidated by this monster they didn’t know how to buy,” adds another former employee.
News 8’s troubles have been compounded by the fact that most local media buys are made by people who know one another. One former media director says that if she had an extra $1,000 to spend on advertising and didn’t know what to do with it, she’d simply call a friend at a local radio station (who would earn a commission from the favor), not consider new media buys. “Everything in this marketplace is done by relationships,” she adds.
From the start, Newschannel 8 had no such relationships to exploit. “The first general sales manager was an outsider,” says a former employee. “He left after six months, and then they hired another outsider, who was also let go. That might have been where they faltered.”
Unable to make any headway with the local advertising agencies, Hillis laid off his best sales people and turned to his over-the-air sibling, Channel 7, for help. The thinking was that WJLA’s sales force—already part of the old-boy network—could sell the two operations in combination. A sales firm was hired to represent News 8 with national advertisers in New York and elsewhere, while some of News 8’s junior salespeople were kept on to sell time to local mom and pop operations.
It’s hard to tell if the strategy is working. News 8 attracted considerable campaign advertising this year, which was cause for hope; some spots for national advertisers like Hyundai and large local advertisers like Marlo Furniture and the Washington Times also find their way into the schedule.
But it appears that much of the available commercial time is not being sold. Some local advertisers say that even though they’ve only paid to air their spots in one zone, the commercials have been running in all three. Others say that their spots have been shown more frequently than they have paid to air them.
Another bad sign is that, since Day One, two of the 10 available minutes of advertising time each hour have been given to 800-number “per-inquiry” (PI) spots—considered by the broadcasting industry to be the least desirable form of advertising.
Companies like U.S. News & World Report don’t pay cash for this commercial time, but instead pay Newschannel 8 for each subscription sold. On average, the ads have generated about 250 subscriptions per month, which industry sources estimate would mean a payout to News 8 of about $1,500. With advertising rates in the $150 range for a 30-second spot, Newschannel 8 stands to make approximately $14,000 per day selling that same time to customers paying cash. As a result, News 8 would love nothing more than to be able to jettison the PI ads.
In the meantime, News 8 does seem to be attracting local businesses that would otherwise be unable to afford television advertisers. Part of the lure is that News 8 produces the spot for no extra cost. It’s not Madison Avenue, but it works.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Sharon French, owner of French’s restaurant at 13th and H Streets NE. French says she occasionally advertises in the Post and Times, but this is her first experience with television. Being on TV has increased her business and made her something of a celebrity. “As soon as [customers] are going through the line, they recognize me,” says French. “They say [the commercial] made them come out and try the food.”
Shirlington Auto Body has also succeeded with its first attempt at TV advertising. “More people say they’ve seen me on TV in the last three months,” says owner Paul Ramm. “No one’s ever said they’ve seen me in the Post or the Yellow Pages.” A half-page ad in the C&P Yellow Pages costs $1,500 per month, he adds, so News 8 actually is an affordable alternative.
There may be a lot of small-business owners who would consider TV advertising, but News 8’s sales staff is going to have to work hard to find and educate them about this medium. Ramm, for example, says he only decided to buy TV time because, after 17 years of print advertising, he wanted a change. “It’s something to take the monotony out of life.”
But whether he’ll continue to ride the airwaves is uncertain. “My wife was more enthused about it,” he says. “I’m not enthused by anything that costs me money. Advertising to me is like going to the dentist. It’s something you need to do, but I don’t do cartwheels down the street because I just signed a contract with C&P for 12 grand a year.”
Early next year, Newschannel 8 will start gradually extending its Maryland coverage to Charles and Calvert counties and its Virginia offering to Loudon and Prince William counties and the city of Manassas. An additional 125,000 viewers will mean more market prominence, a larger pool of potential advertisers, higher advertising rates—just the sort of kick News 8 needs to earn the operation some much-needed revenue.
But the expansion, which will probably be completed next August, also carries risks. What News 8 does best is provide local news; after two years of tracking school boards, county commissions, and obscure political races, Lynch’s reporters have set a new standard in this market for televised coverage of community events. Loudon County is a long way from Arlington, however, and a Virginia newscast that serves both would seem to dilute the narrowcasting principle on which News 8 is based.
Lynch disagrees. “If I was in Loudon County watching Newschannel 8, I’d have a higher probability of seeing Loudon compared to what I’m watching now, even if Newschannel 8 isn’t there for everything,” he says.
That may be, but Arlington and Alexandria viewers who have bought into this novel way of consuming TV news may be as uninterested in stories about Loudon and Prince William as they are in the District and Montgomery County. That could be solved by producing even more zoned newscasts, but it would require additional crews, reporters, and equipment. In short, an even steeper investment.
“We’ve thought of two Virginia reports,” says Hillis. “We’ll do it the day it becomes commercially feasible.”
Until then, Newschannel 8’s fate will rest largely on events over which it has no control, including plain old luck. Long Island’s News 12 earned a spot on the media map in 1990 with its exclusive live coverage of the crash of a Colombian jet en route to Kennedy Airport; when the World Trade Center was bombed earlier this year, NY1’s blanket coverage earned the fledgling news service praise and recognition. When—and if—Newschannel 8 is similarly blessed by the media gods, viewers here will start to pay closer attention.
Demographic trends could also favor News 8. “People may not want to watch news at a given time a year from now,” says a former local TV reporter. “Work habits have changed. People are getting home at 7:30 and like the fact that CNN has news and they don’t have to wait until 11:00….Maybe eventually we’ll look to all-news channels for our news.”
Or maybe Newschannel 8 will be just another of the many niche alternatives trying to crowd out over-the-air newscasts. These will probably include more narrowcast services like Montgomery County’s Cable News 21. Telephone companies are hoping to offer news as part of their video-on-demandservice. Newspapers are also building on- ramps to the coming information superhighway. Earlier this month, for example, the Post announced that a computerized version of the paper will be available in the area by next summer, and that subscribers will eventually be able to search the paper’s archives and call up videotape clips of news stories. None of these will replace the 6 p.m. newscast, but they will siphon away viewers.
“We’re getting to what happened in the newspaper industry,” says John Doolittle, director of the journalism division at the American University’s School of Communication. “We won’t have five or six over-the-air news centers, but maybe one or two in a market.”
A scarcity of advertising could force some broadcast operations to eventually give up on news and devote the time to lucrative syndicated programming. Others may decide to compete in the all-news cable arena, but media analysts say that everything from Newschannel 8’s desirable position on the dial to increased public recognition probably makes its lead over would-be challengers insurmountable.
“If they succeed like CNN,” says Gomery, “no one else will be able to mount the investment to challenge them.”
How long Allbritton will keep writing checks is the central question, but he declined to be interviewed about his plans.
“Our greatest concern would be that it reaches the point where ownership says we’re not in a business as a charity and decides the level of losses has become unacceptable,” says Hillis.
“There’s no indication that’s going to happen,” he adds. “There’s nary a murmur of complaint.”
Hillis was at CNN for its launch and he helped found News 12, so he’s been through this before. Those who know him say he understands both the business and the editorial sides of the operation, and his experience makes him one of the few cable-industry veterans who could make Newschannel 8 successful. News 8’s employees are faithful to the operation and singularly dedicated to its success; even those who were laid off have nothing but good things to say about the operation.
“Hillis is a success in every measure except financially,” says consultant Al Primo. “The channel looks good, it’s winning awards. But it’s not selling enough advertising.”
If Newschannel 8 can turn that around, it will become a permanent part of Washington’s broadcast news establishment. If it can’t, it will become another in a long list of cable-news services that couldn’t compete. In the latter event, Allbritton’s gamble will undoubtedly be eulogized by the city’s over-the-air stations with gut-wrenching tales of David’s failed campaign to unseat four Goliaths. Newschannel 8, on the other hand, will probably cover its own demise as one more event the community should take note of: some video, some narration, then fade to black.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.