Not Too Late For Early Edition

July 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — As the saying goes, 'There's nothing new under the sun.' Perhaps that's why two local television stations are trying something new before the sun comes up. Local FOX affiliate WXMI and ABC affiliate WZZM are launching new morning news programs into a crowded field of local news, weather and sports broadcasts.

WXMI, commonly known as FOX 17, plans to launch a weekday morning news broadcast later this summer, complementing its nightly news. News Director Tim Dye had encouraging words but few details about the planned program.

"This is a natural progression for our station and its news department," said Dye. "Providing local news, weather and sports information is an important role for any local television station and we're anxious to start presenting our quality news coverage at a new time of the day."

The station has not yet announced who will anchor the broadcast, though Dye expects to complete negotiations and release that information soon. Although there are "inside and outside candidates," it sounds as if the morning anchors won't be strange faces to the West Michigan TV market.

"I'm being very careful to choose people who know what to do, who know the area, who know the newsmakers, and who will continue that quality coverage that we have tried to provide to viewers over the past several years," Dye said.

In addition to on-air talent, the launch of the morning show will add several other positions.

"We'll be adding four full-time members and several part-time members, and utilizing some existing staff in some new ways to cover that additional content," Dye said. "The fact is that if you look at it from a ratio standpoint, we have a higher percentage of staff per news-hour than anybody else in the market. So we're able to do some really solid journalistic work, even though it's not more than one time a day. Well, now we're going to be able to work on things in the morning and the evening."

FOX 17 has not set a launch date, but expects the broadcast to begin before school starts this fall.

That move does two significant things to FOX 17's local news programming: It triples the amount of weekday news the station produces, and it weakens the station's unique position as the off-hour news source.

Since the launch of FOX 17 News at Ten in 1999, the station's marketing stance has been summed up with the catchphrase "At 10:00 it's news. At it's history." The new morning program will not have that advantage, coming on and ending an hour after competitors WZZM and WOOD. FOX 17 will share the morning time slot with WWMT, although Nielsen Ratings data show that most of that station's viewers live in the southern portion of the West Michigan television market. Presumably FOX 17 will have a captive audience among local news viewers in the northern region during the second half of its broadcast.

"I think there's an advantage to us from the 7 to 8 a.m. hour when two of the three local stations are not in local programming, and the third, channel 3, is only in local programming (part of the time)," he said. "We think this is a good opportunity for us to find some new audience … being on from to , we'll be catching a lot of the business and school families that are getting up and getting moving for their day during that time."

Dye said the morning program will give FOX 17 an opportunity to provide more service to the community, offering more complete updates on stories from the previous evening and preparing viewers for the day to come with news and weather information.

Of course, public service isn't the only motivating factor. The station, owned by Chicago-based Tribune Broadcasting Co., is eyeing the increased revenue that two more hours of local programming could produce.

"It's a significant investment by our company at a time when a lot of stations are pulling back. We're optimistic that it'll be well received by the audience and the revenues will follow," Dye said. "But for the purposes of presenting the news and being a local news provider in the market, that can't be my primary concern. My primary concern has to be providing the best possible coverage to our viewers."

Unlike Fox 17, WZZM has decided to venture into the weekend morning market. The station already goes head-to-head with WOOD on weekday mornings, and after Sept. 9 will do so on weekends as well. But WZZM will be the only station in the area to offer local news between 6 and on weekends. The new broadcast will span from WOOD's weekend program runs

"We are adding two hours of news on Saturday and Sunday because we think there is an appetite for early morning news," WZZM President and Station Manager Janet Mason wrote in an e-mail.  "Both (News Director) Tim Geraghty and I have launched very successful weekend morning newscasts in our previous markets. These newscasts started out as two-hour programs, and within a few months I expanded the Saturday morning news to three hours because of viewer interest."

Like FOX 17, WZZM is making a sizable investment in the expansion, though not at the expense of its existing local programming.

"As far as resources, we are adding a half-dozen full-time and part-time people to the station," said Mason. "We would not add newscasts if it took resources away from other newscasts. We see this as an opportunity to strengthen our already strong weekday newscasts through the additional personnel and new expanded morning promotion platform. The new weekend full-time hires would also work during the weekday newscasts, which would give those programs more resources, not less."

WZZM is finalizing its staffing for the morning show and expects to announce the on-air crew by the end of July.

Representatives from WWMT and WOOD did not respond to inquiries for this story.    

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