Fox affiliate gets serious about news: WXIN-TV considers expanding 10 p.m. newscast to an hour, adding early-evening edition

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Say Fox Television and you’re more likely to think of Bart Simpson and “American Idol” than traffic updates, weather bulletins or breaking news.

But WXIN-TV Channel 59 General Manager Jerry Martin wants viewers to know the Indianapolis Fox affiliate has a serious side.

Martin said big changes are coming, including possibly expanding WXIN’s 10 p.m. news from 30 minutes to an hour. And the national Fox network might add an evening news show, which likely would lead to a local WXIN newscast at 5 p.m. and/or 6 p.m.

Industry experts said WXIN and its Chicagobased parent, the Tribune Co., have invested in the high six figures to upgrade the local news operation.

WXIN started getting serious about news in December 2003 when it moved from just north of downtown to a 55,000-square-foot studio on the city’s northwest side at Intech Park.

Since Martin took over for Rick Rogala in August 2004, WXIN has added a satellite truck, 3-D weather forecasting system and a comprehensive mapping system good for diagramming city streets and far-flung locales.

On the content front, Martin overhauled the station’s three-hour morning news show, scrapping the name “Fox 59 A.M.” for “Fox 59 Morning News” and giving the program a newsier edge.

“With ‘Fox 59 A.M.,’ there was little weather … little traffic, and you weren’t even allowed to utter the word ‘news’,” Martin said. “It was frolicking fun. A.M. news needs a lighter tone, but you have to be serious about getting people out the door with the information they need.”

Martin, a 48-year-old veteran of TV stations in Connecticut, Washington, California and Rhode Island, is also putting more marketing muscle behind WXIN’s morning and late-evening news. He has plans for additional TV, radio and print advertising.

Among the advantages it will promote are its all-local, three-hour morning news show and the 10 p.m. slot it shares with only one competitor, WISH-TV Channel 8’s 30-minute newscast on WNDY-TV Channel 23.

Martin said strong national Fox lead-in shows and its all-local offering in the morning has the station gaining ground on marketleading WTHR-TV Channel 13, WISH and WRTVTV Channel 6.

Fox’s 10 p.m. news brings in as much revenue as WRTV’s 11 p.m. news, he says, and about threefourths of what WISH and WTHR do with their late news.

Depending on the lead-in show, WXIN’s late news can be a ratings beast. On Jan. 17, when “American Idol” netted a 20.8 rating, WXIN’s local news carried a 12.6 rating, with almost 20 percent of households watching TV at the time tuned in, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. Each rating point equals about 10,715 central Indiana households.

WTHR and WISH usually net ratings in the 8 to 10 range for their 11 p.m. news and WRTV posts a 4 to 6 rating. On a typical night, WXIN’s ratings, usually about a 6, beat WISH’s 10 p.m. news on WNDY-TV. But WISH has only aired its 10 p.m. news on WNDY for about nine months, and Channel 8 General Manager Jeff White promises to mount a challenge.

Overall, WXIN has a ways to go to catch up to its news competitors, but the Fox affiliate’s young audience is something to build on.

“They have attractive demographics,” said Bill Perkins, longtime local media buyer and president of Perkins Nichols Media. “The younger demographics Fox attracts allows them to have a little higher ad rate than they would otherwise.”

Perkins said 30-second spots on WXIN’s late news run $800 to $850, compared with $500 to $750 for WRTV and WISH. WTHR, Perkins said, commands $900 to $1,200 for a 30-second spot during its late news.

WXIN charges far less for its morning news as it struggles to increase ratings in the face of the powerhouse national news shows its local competitors are paired with.

“When you’re competing against the likes of ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘The Today Show’ with Katie Couric, that can be tough,” Perkins said.

As a result of morning ratings hovering in the 2 to 3 range, WXIN charges $120 to $150 for a 30-second spot, Perkins said. WXIN officials acknowledged the three-hour morning show is at best a break-even proposition, but Martin thinks better marketing eventually will increase both ratings and profitability.

Martin’s first move as general manager was to pull four minutes of advertising from the 10 p.m. news to increase news content.

“That hurt us in terms of revenue in the short term, but it’s paying off in the long term,” he said.

The increased news content, Martin said, is attracting more viewers and in turn advertisers to its already profitable 10 p.m. newscast. While the number of ad slots is down, increased demand will push prices for 30-second spots higher, Martin said. It also could lead to package deals to sell more ads during the morning news show.

Shareholders in Tribune Co.-WXIN’s publicly traded parent-were less than thrilled by the move, industry observers said.

“Growth in the face of the kind of competition you’re facing in this market costs money, there’s no way around it,” said Scott Uecker, general manager of WICRFM 88.7 and a communications instructor at the University of Indianapolis. “It takes dollars and time, and that seems to be counter to what Wall Street wants from a media firm.”

While WTHR, WRTV and WISH count on ads sold during local newscasts for up to 60 percent of total revenue, Fox affiliates rely more heavily on the network’s national and syndicated entertainment lineup. Martin’s goal is for news advertising sales to reach 30 percent of WXIN’s revenue after improvements are made.

Martin, who serves as vice president and general manager of sister station WTTV-TV Channel 4 in addition to WXIN, has been with Tribune for much of his career.

He has seen Fox affiliates in other markets challenge for local news supremacy-and make the move pay financially.

“There’s absolutely no reason we can’t put out the best newscast in Indiana,” he said. “We have the resources.”

Martin’s most immediate task is finding a news director. Karen Rariden, who had held the post since 2001, left Nov. 23 to join Philadelphia’s WKYW-TV, a CBS-owned affiliate, as an executive producer. Martin hopes to have the slot filled within 60 days.

With the morning news on the air five years and 10 p.m. newscast celebrating its 15th year, Martin is contemplating an early-evening newscast to go head-tohead with WTHR, WISH and WRTV.

“It’s probably still three years away,” Martin said.

Fueling the talk is Roger Ailes, the brains behind Fox’s cable news network, who was promoted to chairman of Fox Television Stations in August. Industry sources said Ailes is planning an earlyevening national network news program to challenge ABC, CBS and NBC.

“If that happens,” Perkins said, “It would be a natural platform for an earlyevening local Fox newscast.”

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