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In making a play for brand advertising dollars, three local TV giants have launched or recently rebooted news programming geared toward a national audience, seeking to carve out a piece of a pie long dominated by broadcast and cable news outlets. There’s a gold mine out there: The data firm Kagan estimates that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC together generated more than $2.5 billion in advertising revenue in 2020, driven by the hotly contested presidential election.
Nexstar, which owns 199 TV stations in 116 U.S. markets, is rebooting its NewsNation cable channel, building primetime around ABC News chief legal analyst and former Live PD host Dan Abrams. It also is folding in reporting from The Hill, the digital news brand it acquired in August for $130 million. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 184 stations in 86 markets, launched an evening newscast on 64 stations and on its national streaming service STIRR, promising to deliver “news for a national audience from a local perspective.” And E.W. Scripps, which has 61 stations in 41 markets, relaunched streaming platform Newsy on Oct. 4 as a 24-hour online channel that’s available over the air in 90 percent of the country as well.
Each of these efforts is trying to fill a white space that its corporate owners believe isn’t being served by existing TV news outlets. At the same time, national scale via TV and streaming can provide new ad opportunities, particularly in non-election years, which have long been a problem in local TV’s boom-and-bust ad cycle.
Newsy is concentrating on just-the-facts news, hoping to spotlight journalism that isn’t being covered by New York and D.C.-centric outlets. “The idea is, this is a really interesting, varied country. And there are a lot of great stories that I see as a journalist but that the mainstream media has missed over the years,” says Kate O’Brian, head of network news for Scripps. “I think people across the country would like to be represented, and would like their stories to be told, and we aim to do that.”
Sinclair’s pitch for the evening edition of The National Desk says it will be “a comprehensive, commentary-free look at the most impactful national news and regional stories of the day.” (That said, Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group, has argued that Sinclair’s national programming has “regularly misinformed” viewers about certain topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Sinclair also was criticized during the Trump administration for running pro-Trump political commentary segments featuring former White House staffer Boris Epshteyn.)
NewsNation is taking a decidedly different approach by banking on opinion. “I don’t think people [solely] want to be informed, which is why it is really important to have opinion and analysis,” Abrams says of his new show, which debuted Sept. 27. “When people say they are independents, when people say they are political moderates, are they willing to back that up with cable news viewing? I think, I hope, the answer is yes.”
The three efforts are taking three distinctive approaches. NewsNation is ultimately a national cable news channel, a direct competitor to the likes of CNN and Fox News. The National Desk is a pair of individual newscasts, airing free on some of Sinclair’s stations and streaming on its app. Newsy is a full 24-hour news outlet that will be available over the air in most markets (Scripps or not) and streaming everywhere else. “It’s free. It’s free over the air, and it’s free over the top, and it’s free on Newsy.com. And that is a differentiator for us,” O’Brian says. “And frankly it goes back to the original E.W. Scripps invention of the Penny Press, which was to get news in the hands of consumers at an affordable rate. For us, affordable is free.”
“The OTA [over-the-air] viewer has never had a 24/7 news operation,” she adds. “In all the research we have done, it sounds like the OTA viewer really wants to have breaking news, so we hope that this is going to supply the value that the OTA viewer is looking for.”
There is one area where these efforts are strategically aligned: leveraging the news-gathering operations of the companies’ local stations. Newsy will have bureaus embedded within some of Scripps’ stations across the country, as will The National Desk within some Sinclair stations. NewsNation is leaning on a local presence as well. “We have 199 local news stations around the country, so we are better equipped to cover news in the United States than anyone, and now we need to figure out what is the strategy that can apply all of those resources on a national scale,” Abrams says.
These news efforts also serve another purpose: They give these local TV companies a foothold in the national ad market, a presence that can be bundled into deals in an election year and hopefully contribute to the bottom line even in an off year (like 2021, for example). “We’re getting the same cost-per-point in the scatter market as CNN, and I thought that would take years to achieve,” Nexstar CEO Perry Sook said of NewsNation on Aug. 4, adding that “we’re obviously getting smaller rates because our ratings are smaller.”
Still, he called the offering “a very powerful go-to-market opportunity. And we’re in probably the top of the first inning of being able to plumb what that could mean to us over time.”
In the third quarter, before Abrams’ show launched, NewsNation averaged 111,000 total day viewers, according to Nielsen, compared with nearly 1.4 million for Fox News, 738,000 for MSNBC and 598,000 for CNN.
In the case of NewsNation and Newsy, Nexstar and Scripps are hoping that trusted, familiar faces will help bring viewers in the door and keep them tuned in. In addition to Abrams, NewsNation has brought on former CNN and MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield and former Fox News correspondent and anchor Leland Vittert to host programs for the channel.
Newsy, meanwhile, has hired former CNN and Fox News anchor Dave Briggs, former CNN anchor Natalie Allen, and former ABC News anchor Rob Nelson to lead some of its news hours.
The companies also plan to use their local stations as a pipeline for talent. “It’s a great recruitment tool because you can start your career in a small market, move to a large market and end up on a national cable news network if that is your aspiration,” Sook said. “You can do all of that without leaving the confines of the Nexstar Nation.”
Scripps Networks president Lisa Knutson said in August that the company hopes to begin aggressively selling Newsy in the fourth quarter. “There’s a lot of health care dollars that are in the system, and it’s just perfect timing for Newsy’s launch and to be able to begin to capitalize some of those health care dollars,” Knutson told Wall Street analysts Aug. 6.
But for all the investment and advertising opportunity, the hard part will be convincing consumers that a national news brand from the corporate parent of their local TV station is worth checking out.
Says Abrams, “I hope for the same reason that people are passionate about Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon or Sean Hannity, they’ll come to me to say, ‘His worldview is more aligned with mine.’ ”
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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