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Dave Roepke, Published September 21 2011

This just in: Local newscasts fill new time slots, run longer to fill void left by Oprah

FARGO – Local TV news is on the upswing, at least in terms of quantity, and if you’re looking for someone to thank, send the card to Oprah Winfrey in Chicago.

The shake-up spurred by Oprah’s retreat from daily syndication is one of many factors cited in explaining why local TV newscasts, the biggest source of news for most people based on studies of press consumption, have expanded across the U.S. in recent months.

“It seems to be really common,” said H2M Media Director Kim Simonsen.

Bob Papper, a professor at Hofstra University who tracks local TV trends, told the New York Times last month that the average amount of TV news increased by 18 minutes in 2010. He expects an even bigger 2011 spike.

It’s a trend that’s taken hold in the Fargo market, where last week a new 6:30 p.m. news show premiered on KXJB, and this week KVRR’s newscast at 9 p.m. grew from 35 minutes to an hour. This is on the heels of the morning shows on KVLY, KXJB and WDAY in the past year starting their programs at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., adding an hour.

It’s good news for news.

Jim Shaw, news director at KVRR, said it won’t be a problem to fill 25 additional minutes. It just means less for the cutting-room floor.

“Night after night, we were either dropping good stories that should run or significantly shortening them,” Shaw said.

But the motives are more financial than journalistic.

Simonsen said the push for more TV news is simple supply and demand. The time sold during newscasts is particularly valued by advertisers because it’s so rarely recorded in an age when DVR makes skipping commercials common.

“They know they have a very captive audience,” he said.

At the same time, each individual newscast often has less time available as the notion of nonstop news has grown into a key selling point for local stations, Simonsen said. Driving the start of the morning shows back from 6 a.m. to 5 a.m., was a direct result of advertiser demand, he said.

“It was all created because they were sold out from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.,” Simonsen said.

Stations reap more than the usual benefit on sales during newscasts, as they own all that time and don’t have to share the revenue with a network, said Jeff Nelson, news director at WDAY, which like The Forum is owned by Forum Communication Co.

Oprah Winfrey comes in to play because after her talk show ended its 25-year run in May, it gave many stations a cause to rethink syndicated shows’ value, said Jim Wareham, president and general manager for KVLY and KXJB. That, in turn, had ripple effects at stations that didn’t have an Oprah-sized hole to fill.

Often, the conclusion has been to try to maximize the value of news staffs, as the payroll they eat up is one of a station’s biggest costs, Wareham said.

“It spreads that expense out,” Wareham said. “It’s kind of like taking our own destiny in our own hands.”

Spreading the journalists thin could be a concern. As the time to fill swells, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in staffing. On KVRR, the newsroom got one additional employee as it added 25 minutes a day.

“It’s a lot more work. I don’t want to sugar coat it,” Shaw said.

The expansion has also given rise to experimentation. On KXJB, the 6:30 slot is home to a show with a focus on social media input and daily opinion or interview pieces by KFGO talk show host Joel Heitkamp.

Wareham is banking on the market being ready for a new style of local news, but Simonsen said it could be difficult to find success. He said the audience for local TV news, more than in other media, is a creature of habit. Ratings could be tough in new time slots.

“It’s hard to make that change,” he said.

Changes on the tube


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535