NBC's entree may bolster local networks

At a time when layoffs and buyouts at major metropolitan daily newspapers and national magazines are the status quo, NBC is enhancing its coverage of the New York area market.

At a time when layoffs and buyouts at major metropolitan daily newspapers and national magazines are the status quo, NBC is enhancing its coverage of the New York area market.

NBC Universal, for instance, announced this month that it will rechristen WNBC, its New York-based flagship station, NBC New York and use it as a "content center" for 24-hour regional news coverage, extending to New Jersey and Connecticut.

An NBC Universal representative did not return calls seeking comment about the strategy behind an around-the-clock regional news network. However, John Wallace, NBC Universal president of local media, told The New York Times that its news distribution structure "will be organized around the content, not the show."

Wallace added that the network intends to seek viewers in non-traditional, but frequently visited places, such as video screens in taxicabs and on gas pumps. Such tactics will be part of an effort to adjust to changing lifestyles that don't include time for 6pm or 11pm newscasts.

While local TV news viewership has been in decline since the early 1990s, consumers use the medium much more often than newspapers and other sources, says Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

Sixty-five percent of respondents to a 2006 PEJ study said they regularly watch TV news, down from 77% in 1993, but only 40% of the survey's interviewees said they regularly read newspapers, Jurkowitz adds.

"All of the traditional news media have lost market share," he says. "That has happened to local television news as well, but... it's still a reasonably strong franchise."

Local and regional news networks, such as Newton, MA-based New England Cable News, aren't setting ratings records against their competitors, admits Jurkowitz, but they are successfully maintaining their core audiences.

"What I think you'll find is... that those 24/7 news program operations don't dominate their markets in terms of audience, but a lot of them have found a fairly solid niche," he says. "Whether that will work with a broadcast network will be an interesting question."

NBC New York will move into a local news marketplace already crowded by NY1, owned by Time Warner, and the News 12 family of networks, which are run by Cablevision. However, around-the-clock news is not just a staple of the bigger cities, says Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader at the Poynter Institute, who considers News 8 Austin, [TX] and R News of Rochester, NY, successful 24-hour news networks.

Around-the-clock news networks could also be well received in suburban communities, which reporters in urban newsrooms often overlook, notes Tompkins.

"Let's take Nashville, for instance," he adds. "You have a number of metropolitan communities around Nashville where there is no local television station, so those relatively affluent communities might well be targets for local TV to spring up."

The planned February 2009 deadline for TV stations to broadcast in digital format will likely result in cable providing additional local news options for customers, he suggests.

"Many [broadcasters] spent millions of dollars to get digital, but they have not been able to take advantage of it because most people do not have the capacity to take in those digital channels," Tompkins explains. "So when we reach [next February], when we'll make the mandatory digital switch, all this unused capacity will come online. So stations are seeing what they will have the ability to deliver, and delivery systems are going to use what they haven't been able to use before."

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