Must-See TV? 

New Fox newscast looks to rival channels 2, 4, and 5

New Fox newscast looks to rival channels 2, 4, and 5

Imagine getting a toy catalog in the mail and finding the latest gizmo for tots: Fisher-Price’s “My First Newscast.” It would come with a handful of interchangeable action figures—two attractive anchors, a goofy weather guy, and the obligatory fast-talking sportscaster. It might even include a feisty reporter or two. And the carrying case would fold out into a shiny, sparkling, if somewhat generic set. As for the actual news content, let’s just say that a toy company probably wouldn’t give Junior anything too weighty to report.

For the past three years, midstate adults have had just such a toy in their living rooms. It’s WZTV-Fox 17’s local newscast, Fox News at Nine, which many media observers have regarded as child’s play compared to its entrenched network-affiliate competitors at channels 2, 4, and 5. But starting July 6, if Fox has gambled right, playtime is over.

Starting that night, Nashville’s local Fox affiliate, which has been under a restrictive partnership with WKRN-Channel 2 during its short life in Nashville, will produce—at its usual 9 p.m. time slot—its first-ever independent newscast. Finally, the station will have a full staff of reporters; a brand-new, state-of-the-art set; and most importantly, original news content night after night.

“We’re going to have a drastically improved product over what we have now,” says Ken Smith, the station’s news director. “Not knocking what we have had in the past, but we just didn’t have the resources.”

Four years ago, top Fox executive Rupert Murdoch issued a directive to local affiliates to begin producing local newscasts. It was a simple business decision. While local news viewership has declined steadily over the years, it remains a profitable enterprise. And it costs a station far less money to put on a news program than it does to develop original shows or even syndicate old sitcoms and dramas.

But if producing a newscast is relatively inexpensive, it isn’t easy creating a news operation from scratch. The start-up costs can be prohibitive, and hiring enough producers and reporters who can competently cover the market is another challenge. Fox’s current arrangement with Channel 2, which began in July 1997, was conceived around those very challenges, helping to ease its entry into the rough-and-tumble news business. For an undisclosed fee, Channel 2 shared stories with Fox and provided office space in its Murfreesboro Road studios.

Typically, Fox has had only one full-time reporter on staff, and as a result, it simply hasn’t been a player in the local media scene. The station almost never breaks stories, and its newscasts are virtually ignored by local newsmakers. But the partnership with Channel 2 has allowed Fox to develop an identity and gain viewers who like the newscast’s earlier 9 p.m. time slot. Like an older brother, Channel 2 has lent a helping hand to Fox even as the fledgling operation has never come close to competing with it.

Next week that partnership expires, and Fox will somewhat nervously step out on its own into the hotly competitive Nashville TV market. The station’s capable behind-the-desk talent—anchors Laura Faber and Ashley Webster—will remain intact. But now they’ll actually have something to work with.

On a nearly $3 million budget, the station has spent the last three months locating new office space and purchasing the latest in high-tech equipment. Fox has also hired more than 40 news and production staffers. And while the other local stations provide news personnel with dowdy, milquetoast sedans, Fox has purchased six decidedly sporty Nissan Xterras, which cost almost $30,000 each. The two new, tough-looking engineering trucks are each worth more than $200,000.

“There will now be a fourth viable newsroom in Nashville,” says Faber, who, like Webster, has been with Fox from the start. “When we signed on, this is what we were all hoping for. But we have a big task ahead. We won’t have Channel 2 to rely on.”

It’s somewhat ironic that in the midst of the so-called information age, the birth of an independent media outlet is a milestone event. Sure, there are various online content sites popping up (and crashing) daily, but in the midst of media mergers and defunct afternoon papers, the media world seems to be losing more voices than it’s gaining. In Nashville, the local media market has long lacked a diverse range of credible and aggressive outlets, accentuated not just by the demise of the Nashville Banner two years ago, but also by the decline of local radio and the increasing sameness of channels 2, 4, and 5.

So at the very least, the advent of Fox’s fresh newscast will add one more voice. The question, however, is whether that voice will be heard over the competition.

“I’ll check it out, but I don’t have the highest of hopes” says Will Sanford, an avid local news viewer. “But if they come on and tell me what I wasn’t reading in The Tennessean or seeing on the other stations, then I’ll be excited.”

Sanford might not want to get his hopes up just yet. When asked how they plan to differentiate themselves from competitors, station officials talk less about their approach to journalism than the time slot of their newscast. The station’s slogan is “First on Fox,” and anchor Ashley Webster somewhat tellingly notes that “our biggest asset will be coming on at 9.”

There are, in fact, some strategic advantages to producing a newscast that airs an hour before the competition. For starters, the earlier time slot attracts early risers and other viewers who don’t want to wait until 10 p.m. to watch the local news. Indeed, the Fox network reports that the 23 affiliates that air a 9 p.m. newscast typically boast higher ratings than those that produce one at 10 p.m.

Another advantage: On the day of a major breaking story, viewers typically want to tune in as soon as they can. The same goes for people interested in sports scores or impending bad weather.

But for Fox to become a heavy hitter—or a hitter at all—in the local TV market, it can’t simply rely on the uniqueness of its time slot. “Ten o’clock is plenty early for people who want or need a late-night newscast,” says attorney Tom Lee, a former television reporter. “Ultimately, the test will be whether they can offer a compelling product.”

To that end, station officials are touting the fact that Fox’s new hour-long newscast—it’s only a half-hour now—will provide time to report more in-depth stories.

“Say the mayor announced a ground-breaking new plan for Metro schools. How do you do that story in a minute and 15 seconds?” asks news director Smith. “The great thing about an hour newscast is that if you need to do a four-minute story, you can.” Adds Webster, “We can tell the whole story because now we’ll have time to do it.”

Fox also plans to air fewer crime stories and live interviews, and more health segments. Other innovations will include more colorful graphics and a large, snazzy set that will appear especially vivid after an upcoming conversion to digital broadcasting technology. And, of course, being an affiliate of the edgy Fox network means that the newscast will likely feature unusual camera angles, sharp writing, and a quicker tempo.

“Viewers are going to turn to us to see a change,” says reporter Stephanie Cornwell, who was recently hired from a small-market television station in North Carolina. “It will be faster, more intense, more creative, and will have more on-the-edge reporting.”

Interestingly, the very image of Fox as being a bold—if occasionally brash—network is something the station simultaneously embraces and dismisses. “There is a certain concept of a Fox attitude, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to put on a tabloid newscast,” says Jeff Stern, the station’s general manager. “You can have news with an attitude and an edge without being sensational. It’s important to be responsible and credible.”

But others suggest that Fox’s less-than-serious persona can’t help the credibility of a news operation. “I don’t like to hear from people, ‘Oh, you’re the station that airs When Animals Attack,’ ” says Faber, a former reporter at WSMV-Channel 4. “Hopefully viewers won’t connect some of our programs with our newscast.”

During its three-year training stint, Fox 17’s news programming has seemed relatively sober, even restrained—in other words, a very poor poster child for the Fox formula. If anything, WTVF-Channel 5, the station that recently introduced viewers to the lurid “Spring Break Tapes,” is a more accurate representation of the kind of substance and tone most Fox affiliates project.

But Fox officials say they don’t plan a change on that front. In fact, they plan to continue rejecting the increasingly sleazy sweeps stories that dominate the local market.

“I’ve worked in New York and Chicago, and I’ve never seen anything this bad,” Stern says of the recent May sweeps in Nashville. As for Channel 5’s “Spring Break Tapes,” he says, “I don’t think we’d run them. There was no point to that story. Everybody knows that kids party. That’s nothing new.” Adds Webster, “I hope we wouldn’t do anything that we were embarrassed about.”

So if they’re not going to offer sensationalistic fare, how exactly will Fox 17 be like its parent company? The station’s behind-the-desk personalities say that working under the Fox banner allows them to be quirkier and more creative.

Take for example, Tim Ross, the station’s popular, if somewhat goofy, meteorologist. “I can say, ‘Be alert for a squirt,’ which viewers remember more than ‘partly cloudy with a slight chance of rain,’ ” he says. “Fox gives you more leeway. We don’t have to be a bunch of stuffed shirts.”

Sportscaster Skip Baldwin agrees. “The other guys do a good job,” he says of his on-air competition. “But I have a different way of presenting sports. I’ve done features on fencers, skateboarders, and I did a piece on Titans mini-camp with the ‘Camp Grenada’ song playing in the background.”

Of course, quirkiness alone won’t sell a newscast. Perhaps experience will. “We have 45 years’ worth of [collective] experience behind the desk,” Faber says of the on-air team of Webster, Baldwin, Ross, and herself. “And we’re all from the old school of journalism where we believe in old-fashioned reporting.”

Still, the staff at Fox realizes how steep a challenge it faces. Whatever the many shortcomings of channels 2, 4, and 5, each station has made a mark in Nashville. Each also features popular anchors backed up by relatively experienced casts of reporters who know the city and the motley characters who make it tick.

In contrast, while Faber and Webster give Fox the illusion of stability, they have only been on the air for three years. And they won’t have any war-tested reporters such as Channel 4’s Nancy Amons and Channel 5’s Phil Williams to rely on. Although Ken Smith is a Nashville native, nearly all of the reporters he’s hired are out-of-towners coming from far-away markets such as Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

Finally, while the station is expanding its newscast, it will still have far less news programming than the big three.

So naturally, now that playtime is coming to an end, the staff at Fox seems a little apprehensive. “In television, changing viewing habits is a hard thing to do,” Webster says. “We’re nervously excited.”

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