- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

Executives at WUSA-TV (Channel 9) promise that viewers who tune into the station’s newest newscast at 7 p.m. will see a program free of the cliches that plague local television news.

No reports on house fires, shootings or other random acts of mayhem.

No lengthy weather segments that force viewers to wait to the end to find out if they will need an umbrella.

No silly, feel-good stories about water-skiing squirrels.

“Everyone says their news is going to be different. This really will be,” said Derek McGinty, the program’s sole anchor and a former radio talk show host and ABC news reader.

The half-hour “USA Tonight,” set to debut Sept. 8, will mark the first local newscast on a broadcast station in the Washington area at 7 p.m., a time slot traditionally reserved for network news, game shows and sitcom reruns.

WUSA executives say the program will be geared toward commuters who arrive home too late to see its 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts. But the CBS affiliatealso is treating the show as an opportunity to take a more “serious” approach to local news.

During the first few minutes of each program, Mr. McGinty will read the day’s top headlines.

Then he will introduce a segment called “Page One,” a two-minute to three-minute report on one of the day’s top stories. The typical local television news report lasts about one minute and 30 seconds.

Following the “Page One” segment, Mr. McGinty will moderate a round-table discussion or conduct a live interview on the subjects examined in the report.

In the final minutes of each show, he will deliver a commentary or read viewer e-mail.

Weather will be limited to a 30-second report by chief meteorologist Topper Shutt that will air immediately before or after a commercial break. The program will have no regularly scheduled sports segment but may present an occasional sports feature story.

“The show will be a work in progress. There will be things that may be wonderful ideas on paper that just don’t work on TV,” said Mr. McGinty, who has helped craft the format.

The CBS affiliate in Chicago attempted a similarly high-minded newscast in 2000, but it lasted just nine months. Critics cheered that program, which featured a single anchor, longer stories, live interviews and weather and sports segments that varied in length.

One key difference: At 7 p.m., “USA Tonight” will air opposite “NBC Nightly News” on WRC-TV (Channel 4), the syndicated “Wheel of Fortune” on ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and “Friends” reruns on the Fox affiliate, WTTG-TV (Channel 5).

The Chicago program aired weeknights at 10 p.m., when it competed with the more traditional late newscasts on the market’s other network affiliates.

“It’s encouraging to see someone try something different. My fear was that no one would attempt to do this kind of show again after the implosion in Chicago,” said Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a nonprofit group that advises stations on ways to improve news coverage.

WUSA is committed to giving “USA Tonight” a chance to find an audience, said David Roberts, the station’s vice president of news, but he declined to say how long that would be.

“USA Tonight” is his station’s latest attempt to do news differently, Mr. Roberts said. WUSA — which uses the slogan “No gimmicks. No hype. Just the news.” — recently turned its 5 p.m. newscast into an interview show.

“Our industry is going to have examine a lot of the practices that turn off a lot of viewers, whether it’s silly titles or flashy graphics or not covering serious stories,” he said.

The biggest challenge facing “USA Tonight” may be getting viewers to sample it. Most local viewers who want news at 7 p.m. get it from NBC or from cable.

Unlike “NBC Nightly News,” Mr. McGinty said, his show will cover both national and local stories. Viewers are just as likely to see segments on the war in Liberia as they are on the problems facing Greater Southeast Community Hospital in the District, he said.

WUSA has built Mr. McGinty his own set to distinguish his program from its other newscasts. The show’s name, “USA Tonight,” is both a play on its station’s call letters and a nod to the newspaper USA Today, which is published by WUSA parent Gannett Co. Inc.

Other stations around the nation have experimented with newscasts in the 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. time slot with mixed results.

In 1991, WRC produced a half-hour 7:30 p.m. newscast for WB affiliate WBDC-TV (Channel 50), then an independent station. It attracted dismal ratings and was canceled after 10 months.

The ABC affiliate in Detroit began a half-hour newscast at 7 p.m. after September 11. The program originally was devoted to the war on terror, but it has evolved into a mix of reports, live interviews and round-table debates.

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