A new network affiliation agreement means WTTV-TV Channel 4 is likely in for major changes starting in January, including having its own local news broadcasts as well as an entirely different lineup of national programming.
Those changes are coming in the wake of Monday's huge announcement that Chicago-based Tribune Broadcasting, parent to WTTV, has wrestled away the CBS-TV affiliation held by WISH-TV Channel 8 since 1956.
A source familiar with the deal said big plans are currently on the drawing board for WTTV.
As part of its new relationship with CBS, which starts Jan. 1, WTTV will air National Football League games—including many of the Indianapolis Colts games—NCAA basketball games, The Masters golf tournament and other sports programming, as well as all of CBS-TV’s prime-time and national news shows.
A source familiar with WTTV’s preliminary plans said the station will have its own newscasts separate from its local sister station, WXIN-TV Channel 59, which is affiliated with Fox Broadcasting.
“It will be its own news; nothing will be repurposed from WXIN,” the source said. “The specifics are still being worked out.”
Though WTTV’s plans are still being formulated, the source familiar with the station’s discussions said WTTV will hire its own TV personalities and not rely on WXIN’s on-air talent.
The source said it is unclear exactly what times the station would air local news, but the possibility of local newscasts multiple times a day “is a very good possibility.”
WTTV currently airs programming from The CW Television Network, and will continue to do that on one of its digital channels, sources said. CW is a division of CBS. The CW does not produce news programming.
Rick Gevers, an Indianapolis-based agent who represents on-air television news talent, said launching a local newscast by January will be a tall order.
“Getting everything in place in just four months would be, I’d say, almost impossible without at least initially leaning on WXIN,” Gevers said.
Local on-air newspeople have contracts with local station owners, not the stations' national broadcast affiliates, which means the on-air talent at WISH is under contract to owner LIN Media.
WISH officials did not return calls seeking comment, nor did officials from Rhode Island-based LIN Media.
WTTV, meanwhile, will have to find and hire news anchors, field reporters and weather forecasters.
WISH, too, has “a big challenge ahead of it,” Gevers added.
“The big question is, what does [WISH] do for programming?” he said. “I’m sure they’re all in shock there.”
Tribune Broadcasting and WTTV officials declined to comment beyond what was in a short news release.
“WISH’s best bet at this point might be to go independent and expand their local news coverage,” Gevers said. “I’ve seen that work in other markets: KRON in San Francisco and WJXT in Jacksonville.”
The big question, Gevers said, is, how much appetite is there for local news?
“WXIN is already producing a ton of local news, and now you’ll have WTTV, and if WISH expands its local news to fill its programming hole, I just don’t know how many advertisers there are for local news shows,” he said.
The demand for advertising during local TV newscasts is relatively strong, but primarily flat as far as growth, said Bruce Bryant, president of Indianapolis-based Promotus Advertising.
“Each local station has already broadened its coverage and scope,” Bryant said. “If you load another property in this market with a whole new crew, I begin to wonder if there are enough advertisers to go around. I would say launching a new local TV news product is a real risky proposition at this point.”
Local news has traditionally been a powerful moneymaker for local stations, with advertising sold in local news shows constituting 40 percent to 60 percent of revenue.
“Yes, the local news can be a lucrative venture for local stations, but to do it right, it can also be very expensive,” Bryant said. “If they’re going to steal audience from other established players in this market, WTTV is going to have to spend some serious money. Either that or they’ll be an afterthought when it comes to local news.”
Gevers pointed out, however, that a local station can get a big bounce in its local news ratings if its affiliate’s national programming rates high.
“Lead-in programming is very important,” Gevers said, “so we’ll have to see how that plays out for WTTV.”
In the local TV news rating race, WTHR-TV Channel 13 has been a market leader for more than a decade. WISH has been a solid No. 2, while WRTV-TV Channel 6 has been third. But, in the last two years, WXIN has made a major move in the ratings, scoring in the top two in some time slots while expanding to offer more local news than any other Indianapolis station.
CBS Corp. did not say specifically why it was switching from WISH to WTTV, but one of its executives hinted at the reason in a prepared statement.
"There's nothing more valuable to a local station than programming from the No. 1 television network, and Tribune Broadcasting has been a great partner in reaching this agreement," said Ray Hopkins, president of television networks distribution for CBS. "We're very pleased that Tribune recognized the full value that CBS brings to their business and brands across all of their stations included in this deal."
Tribune also renewed CBS affiliations in Memphis, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; Ft. Smith, Arkansas; and Richmond, Virginia.
Variety reported Monday that CBS couldn't reach an agreement with LIN over reverse retransmission consent compensation.
"CBS’ shuffle in Indianapolis sends a clear message to other affiliate stations that the network is willing to move if station owners don’t want to pay the Eye’s price," Variety said. "Networks were once loathe to move stations in a market for fear that the disruption in channel position would cost them viewers. But in the programming environment driven by digital listings and on-demand options, the Eye is clearly confident that viewers will find its shows no matter where it lands on the dial."
WISH's operations have seen some upheaval in recent years with the departure of longtime general manager Jeff White in June and a series of talent losses, including longtime anchor Debby Knox, who retired in November, and popular meteorologist Angela Buchman, who fled to WTHR-TV Channel 13 in 2012.