- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

Good day, cable television news viewers. Our top story: David beats Goliath.
NewsChannel 8 Washington's local cable news channel has surged ahead of its national counterparts in the ratings race. It scored some of the highest numbers in its 10-year history this summer, when it attracted 22 percent more viewers than competitors like CNN.
The channel still trails local broadcast network affiliates like NBC-owned WRC-TV Channel 4 in the ratings, but it is beginning to close the gap with those stations. Overall, NewsChannel 8 is growing at a time when low ratings and weak cash flow are pushing other 24-hour local news operations out of business, including two California channels that went off the air this summer.
Allbritton Communications Co., NewsChannel 8's privately held owner, won't disclose its revenue, but says the channel has been profitable since 1997. Last month, Allbritton renewed an agreement with Comcast Cable Communications Inc. the Washington area's largest cable operator that will keep NewsChannel 8 on its systems for at least another 10 years.
Making the news convenient for busy viewers has been key to the network's success, says John Hillis, NewsChannel 8's president and general manager since its October 1991 debut.
He cites "The Rush Hour Report," the network's fast-paced morning newscast, as an example. The 3*-hour show is geared toward commuters who flip on their TV sets while they get ready for work.
"Some people have accused it of being radio on TV," Mr. Hillis says.
"If you watch for five minutes, you'll get some headlines, the weather, the traffic. If you watch for 15 minutes, you'll get all that plus last night's sports scores. If you watch for a full half hour, you will get very bored."
The channel, based in Springfield, is one of 32 all-local-news cable channels in the country. The success of the channels vary greatly, according to Dan Trigoboff, senior editor of Broadcasting & Cable, a trade magazine.
NewsChannel 8 is one of the most successful, Mr. Trigoboff says. Other ratings champions include News 1 in New York, one of several local cable news operations owned by media giant AOL Time Warner Inc.
"When these things succeed, it has more to do with how they are run and how they are financed. A lot depends on how well they are managed," Mr. Trigoboff says. Allbritton, a $205 million company, is one of the larger television groups in the country.
NewsChannel 8 has taken advantage of changing tastes among news viewers, says Mark Thalhimer, project director for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, an industry research group.
In general, viewers prefer local newscasts to national news shows, he says. Since the Cold War ended, the national shows have lost their ability to hold the country's attention, Mr. Thalhimer says.
"We've moved away from the Walter Cronkite, one-size-fits-all model of, 'Tonight, we're going to tell you what's important in the world,' " he says.

Untested concept

Allbritton, which is owned by Washington banking magnate Joe L. Allbritton, spent $6.5 million to start NewsChannel 8 in 1991, at the height of CNN's popularity following the Persian Gulf war.
The company whose flagship station is local ABC affiliate WJLA-TV Channel 7 believed a 24-hour local news channel would thrive in Washington, the nation's eighth-largest television market.
Round-the-clock local news was a largely untested concept at the time. Only two such channels existed News 12 on Long Island, N.Y., and the Orange County Newschannel in California. Both operations were still in their infancy and not making money.
"The demographics were right in Washington. This is a market that was tailor-made for this kind of service," says Jerald Fritz, an Allbritton senior vice president.
To ensure the channel was seen on as many cable systems as possible, Allbritton required operators that carry WJLA to pick up NewsChannel 8, too. The company also placed the "8" in the channel's name to encourage operators to give it prime real estate on the television dial, between WJLA and local CBS affiliate WUSA-TV Channel 9.
Ratings were virtually invisible in the beginning, and it was six years before the channel had its first profitable month.
A turning point came when cable operators that carried NewsChannel 8 without charge were forced to begin paying for it, the result of a change in federal regulations. This gave a second revenue stream to the channel, which had previously relied solely on advertising dollars.
Stephen B. Burke, Comcast Cable's president, said in a statement the decision to renew NewsChannel 8 shows "our dedication to providing important local programming for the Washington, D.C., market."
Allbritton which declines to name the fee Comcast will pay to carry the channel is also expected to complete renewal deals with the smaller cable systems in Washington this year, according to Mr. Fritz.
But ad revenue is also crucial to NewsChannel 8. It charges roughly $100 to $350 apiece to air 10 30-second commercials, hundreds of dollars less than similar packages offered by the network affiliates.
The cheaper rates primarily attract small-business owners like Oscar Wiygul Jr., who has advertised his Alexandria auto repair chain on NewsChannel 8 since the channel's debut.
"We have to make every dollar count. They give us the most affordable opportunity to reach our target audience," Mr. Wiygul says.

Behind the scenes

Economizing goes on behind the scenes at NewsChannel 8, too.
The channel has 147 employees, and roughly 90 work in the news department. The staffing is comparable to the local broadcast affiliates, but the channel has to fill airtime around the clock. Network affiliates produce their own shows, but most of their airtime is filled with programming distributed by the national broadcast networks.
To get the most bang for its buck, NewsChannel 8 sometimes has reporters double as their own news crew, requiring them to lug around heavy camera and sound equipment to news scenes.
Most 24-hour news channels use similar cost-control measures, according to Mr. Thalhimer, who has studied the networks for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation. He says the channels try to make the news the "stars" of their shows, a philosophy that helps them stretch their budgets.
Other operations use big names to draw viewers, such as WRC, where its evening news quartet anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler, weatherman Bob Ryan and sportscaster George Michael have kept it atop the ratings for more than a decade.
Channels like NewsChannel 8 generally pay reporters annual salaries between $30,000 and $40,000, roughly half what a reporter might make at a network affiliate in a big city.
"Jim Vance, Bob Ryan and George Michael probably have the top three [local news] salaries in town, and they probably represent half of John Hillis' whole budget," Mr. Thalhimer says.

Clear identity

Two of NewsChannel 8's cousins in California died this summer.
Bay TV, a 24-hour cable news channel in San Francisco, went dark July 31. Friday, the owners of the 13-year-old Orange County Newschannel one of the channels Allbritton modeled NewsChannel 8 after took it off the air.
Both operations had been bleeding viewers and money for years. The channels also lacked a clear identity, critics say.
NewsChannel 8 has avoided similar criticism, Mr. Hillis says, because its programming is tailored to the Washington area, which encompasses the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. "Our model wouldn't work in another city," he says.
The channel's signature is its zoned evening newscasts for viewers in the three jurisdictions. It has also made wall-to-wall coverage of big local events such as presidential inaugurations and big snowstorms a hallmark.
But the channel has strayed from its initial round-the-clock news schedule, part of its strategy to hold onto viewers who otherwise tune in only when there is a breaking story.
Since 1995, NewsChannel 8 has repeated several ABC News shows a few hours or days after they air on the network's affiliates. For example, "World News Tonight" airs weeknights at 10 p.m. on NewsChannel 8, 3* hours after its broadcast on WJLA.
The scheduling part of the channel's "convenient news" mantra makes it easier for busy Washingtonians to catch popular shows they would otherwise miss, Mr. Hillis says. "A lot of folks on Capitol Hill are still working at 6:30 at night, so they get their Peter Jennings fix from us," he says.
NewsChannel 8 also airs its own talk shows and magazine shows, which tend to fall somewhere along the spectrum between cable access programming and the local shows the broadcast affiliates once produced, like WTTG's old "Panorama" afternoon talk show.
Among NewsChannel 8's offerings: "Moms Talk," a Monday morning advice show hosted by two Mount Airy, Md., housewives, and "Entertainment Forecast," a Wednesday night movie review show.
The channel originally seen only on cable systems in the District and its closet suburbs has 1.2 million subscribers today. In recent years it has expanded into outer suburbs like Southern Maryland and Prince William County, offering regular coverage of school board meetings and planning commission hearings in communities that often complain the Washington affiliates neglect them.
'

Solid news'

Reese Schonfeld, a CNN co-founder who helped Allbritton develop NewsChannel 8, says the network sticks to "bread-and-butter" stories on government, schools and transportation, avoiding sensational sex and crime stories that turn many viewers off.
He cites the coverage of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy as an example. Instead of speculating on her relationship with Rep. Gary A. Condit, a California Democrat, NewsChannel 8 has largely treated the story as a local missing-person case.
"They deliver solid news, and viewers are responding to it," Mr. Schonfeld says.
Indeed. NewsChannel 8 scored its highest ratings in July for a month with no snowstorm, when viewership in winter-phobic Washington traditionally skyrockets.
Nielsen Media Research gave NewsChannel 8 an average .73 rating in July. Its numbers were 22 percent higher than the .59 rating CNN scored in Washington during the month, and 273 percent higher than the .19 rating CNN Headline News scored.
Each ratings point represents roughly 11,700 Washington households. Other national competitors, such as MSNBC and CNBC, generally rank between CNN and Headline News in the local ratings. Numbers for the fast-growing Fox News Channel which is not widely seen in Washington were unavailable.
NewsChannel 8's July ratings were up 28 percent from the same month last year, but it still trailed the local news shows that the Washington affiliates air.
On weekdays between 6 and 8:30 a.m., when "The Rush Hour Report" competes with top-rated WRC's local news and "Today" show, NewsChannel 8 scored a 1.12 rating. Nielsen gave WRC a 4.8 rating during the same period, although WRC is seen in more households.
NewsChannel 8 may get lower numbers than the affiliates, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been noticed.
All the Washington affiliates now incorporate the video feeds from government-owned traffic cameras in Maryland and Virginia into their live traffic reports, a practice NewsChannel 8 pioneered years ago.
The broadcasters have also beefed up their local news coverage since NewsChannel 8 hit the scene. WRC, for example, now carries 6* hours of local news weekdays, up from three hours in 1991.
And several NewsChannel 8 reporters have moved on to jobs at bigger operations, including Shari Macias, now a reporter for WRC, and Fredricka Whitfield, now a correspondent for NBC News.
"We're the place where a lot of people get their start, and that's fine with us," Mr. Hillis says.


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