Media Scene

Fox46 abandons experimental newscast for more traditional formula

Karen Adams in the WJZY (Channel 46) newsroom in 2014. She left the station in late June for another corporate assignment with Fox.
Karen Adams in the WJZY (Channel 46) newsroom in 2014. She left the station in late June for another corporate assignment with Fox. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

At Charlotte’s Fox46, the newscast of the future is a thing of the past.

Eighteen months after launching a bold corporate initiative to re-engineer the traditional TV newscast, WJZY (Channel 46) has retreated to the formula it once mocked: chasing fire trucks and illustrating the police scanner.

Even pandering to a low common denominator has not helped the station’s woeful news ratings, a distant last in each time period in which it competes against others.

Fox46 drew industry attention when it launched an hour-long 10 p.m. newscast in January 2014 designed, Fox executives said, to appeal to a new generation of viewers hungry for substance, not flash.

Traditional male/female “voice of God” anchor teams went away. There was no anchor desk, but rather a series of big screens used to introduce stories. Crime news was reported only when the public was menaced, like with a prison break. Reporters were based outside Charlotte to increase regional coverage. Reporters were photographers too, recording and editing their own video.

After aiming to re-engineer local news, Fox46 has retreated to the formula it once mocked: chasing fire trucks and standard urban crime.

Karen Adams, WJZY’s station’s manager, said Fox Television Stations CEO Jack Abernethy wanted the network’s newest station to experiment with fresh approaches.

“He said he wanted me to create the newsroom of the future and the culture that would support it,” Adams said in an interview last year.

But what debuted Jan. 1, 2014, never found traction. Plagued by technical problems and relying on journalists with little experience, it had an amateurish quality. Viewers turned away.

Adams has now left WJZY to take on a new corporate assignment. A search is underway for her successor in Charlotte.

WJZY’s newsroom is beset by turnover. It cannot fill a newscast with local news and relies on repetitive weather reports and network stories to use up time. Regional reports are rare. Traditional male/female anchors are back.

By nearly every metric, Fox46’s news product is struggling.

Its morning news show runs a distant fifth behind Charlotte’s four other morning news programs. At 6 a.m., WJZY has an audience of only about 1,200 vs. more than 70,000 at market leader WSOC (Channel 9).

WJZY’s 6 p.m. news audience, according to Nielsen, is around 5,700 viewers, only a third of the number of people watching “People’s Court” at that hour on its sister station WMYT (Channel 55).

WJZY, carrying the Fox network shows between 8 and 10 p.m., has the biggest audience leading up to 10 p.m. versus its two news rivals – WCCB (Channel 18), which carries the CW network, and WAXN (Channel 64), which enters the 10 p.m. news hour from repeats of “Dr. Phil.”

But WJZY falls from about 25,900 viewers at 9:45 p.m. to 17,000 at 10 p.m., and then loses about a third of that audience in the first 15 minutes of the newscast.

No. 1 WAXN and No. 2 WCCB roughly double their audiences the minute their 10 p.m. newscasts begin as viewers switch over from other channels.

Ratings translate directly into earnings. Stations with the most viewers can charge the highest rates for ads, and news stations tend to make about half their overall revenue on ads airing during newscasts.

While stations don’t disclose their revenue, some indication of Fox46’s competitive financial situation can be inferred by looking at rates for political commercials, which are publicly reported under federal rules.

Here is what various Charlotte stations are billing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a 30-second “issue” spot being run this month on late newscasts: No. 1 WSOC (Channel 9), $1,200; No. 2 WBTV (Channel 3), $900; No. 3 WCNC (Channel 36) $500; No. 5 WCCB (Channel 18), $300; and No. 6 WJZY (Channel 46), $150.

No. 4 WAXN (Channel 64), which dominates the 10 p.m. news competition, hasn’t reported any billing for the current Chamber campaign but was charging about $500 per 30-second political spot before the election last November.

Although big local advertisers like car dealers pay far less per spot because of volume contracts (the same way you pay less by buying in bulk at the grocery store), you can still see that WJZY is likely reaping about a third or less than rival WAXN.

Bright spots for WJZY: Although Fox prime-time viewing is down in Charlotte, according to Nielsen, there is slight growth in its 10 p.m. news rating year-to-year; its 10 p.m. news audience of those in the 25-54 age range that advertisers covet is closer to that of No. 2 WCCB’s than before; and WJZY still carries the most-viewed shows of the year in the Carolina Panthers broadcasts.

For Fox television, the next question will be how to boost its news ratings in Charlotte. Neither a radical approach nor chasing the leaders – and the ambulances – seems to be the winning formula.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, mwashburn@charlotteobserver.com, Twitter: @WashbumChObs

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