Who’s in first? Denver TV news programs slug it out amid digital revolution in viewing

At 6 a.m. each weekday, after pouring her coffee and patting her dog for a few minutes, Christy Moreno obsessively refreshes her iPhone for an email containing the previous day’s TV news ratings.

“I absolutely go through every show that we’ve got,” said Moreno, the news director at KUSA-Channel 9, Denver’s longtime ratings champion. “I take into account what kind of day it was. Was it a holiday? Was there a big sporting event? Was it raining?”

All of this happens before Moreno jumps into her Honda CRV and drives to KUSA’s studios on Speer Boulevard from her home in Lone Tree.

“It’s strange how many of those (ratings) stick with me throughout the day,” said Moreno, who joined Denver’s NBC affiliate in 2015 after stints in Houston and Knoxville, Tenn. “The competition here is tight. I always tell people our competitors are getting better and smarter all the time, so we have to do the same thing.”

That’s no surprise in the TV-news world, where the difference of a single Nielsen ratings point in a Denver-sized market can mean millions of dollars in advertising revenue, according to local industry professionals.

But these days, staying competitive means more than just refreshing the faces reading the news, as KUSA must do when veteran anchor Adele Arakawa steps down June 30. As Arakawa recently told The Denver Post, stations such as KUSA formerly commanded a 45 share (or percent of TVs turned on at the time.)

“Now we celebrate a 4 or 5 share,” she said.

That has forced not only television stations but all news media to experiment with digital formats and other types of engagement as viewers — particularly younger ones — melt away from traditional delivery methods and turn toward mobile and online consumption.

But while cord-cutting is one of the buzziest trends in the tech world, the local TV news industry remains a relative powerhouse.

The newsroom at at Fox 31 ...

John Leyba, The Denver Post

The newsroom at Fox31 on June 12, 2017 where Jeremy Hubbard and Aristea Brady prepare for the news cast at their desk.

“In most markets, you would have to aggregate the top five to 10 cable channel audiences to even come close to the top local television station audience,” Larry Wert, president of broadcast media at Tribune Media, told Poynter last month.

In the Mile High City, TV news also attracts hundreds of millions of dollars in annual ad revenue. A single station in a Denver-sized market can pull in between $75 million and $90 million per year, depending on whether it’s an election year, said industry sources who asked not to be named for competitive reasons. That revenue powers stations that allocate anywhere from $5 million to $10 million for their newsroom operations, and four to five times that much for the entire station.

The Denver metro area — with its rapidly changing demographics, geographic isolation and heavy emphasis on sports and the outdoors — is a unique laboratory in which to experiment.

“We’re basically a giant sports bar that cares about weather,” said former TV news reporter Kathleen Ryan, now associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado. “But people aren’t paying as much attention anymore. They have their laptops, tablets and phones out while they’re watching something on television. That’s a huge shift in the industry.”

On top of that, there is no shared map to where things are going.

“The majority of people are not regular viewers of local TV news, so the question is, can we come up with different types of content to appeal to these folks?” said Kyle Clark, KUSA news anchor and host of “Next with Kyle Clark.”

“Next” represented a bold experiment for KUSA when it launched in August, focusing on upbeat enterprise stories and social media engagement over typical teleprompter fodder.

“It seems like the real risk would be refusing to innovate at a time in which the industry as a whole is in a difficult place,” Clark said. “Instead of fighting over an ever-shrinking pie, why don’t we go out and find a new pie?”

The heavily marketed “Next” has lost ground compared with Channel 9’s previous 6 p.m. newscast. As of the May sweeps period, “Next” was down 18 percent compared with the conventional newscast in that slot previously, with a 1.97 rating. However, KUSA officials noted that “Next” still ranks No. 1 in its time slot, and that roughly 75 percent of all viewer feedback at the station is now related to “Next.”


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  • Furthermore, they said, history has proved that some of the best shows take time to find their audiences.

    “This is not a beta test. This is something that we believe in,” said KUSA general manager Steve Carter. “What we’ve found is we’ve attracted the audience back that we drove away. And I mean TV news in general. Focus groups said ‘Too much crime, too sad. I have to take kids out of the room when it’s on.’ And this show allows them to keep kids in the room, learn something and smile.”

    In many TV news markets, stations live by a strict diet of knowing what they can and can’t repeat in their broadcasts. Not so in Denver, said KMGH-Channel 7 news director Lindsay Radford.

    “The unique thing here is the amazing influx of new people every single month,” Radford said. “You’re continuously recruiting new eyeballs to your TV station, which makes it tough for all of us.”

    The Denver market is the 17th largest in the country, with 1,641,664 homes. When measuring adults between the ages of 25 and 54, the standard TV news audience, 1 rating point equals 16,416 viewers. A rating point represents 1 percent of the total number of households with televisions; share is the percentage of TV sets in use at a particular time.

    Broadcasters have often complained that the sample size is too small. Nielsen also doesn’t measure tablets, smartphone or desktop viewing. That’s significant for Denver, one of the top “early adopter” markets according to industry analysts, where smartphone penetration tracks above national averages (87 percent here vs. 82 percent nationally, according to 2016 data).

    That gives TV-news operations added incentive to defend their existing ground while battling for new territory.

    “The Walter Cronkite days are gone. You can’t just sit at a desk and read the news anymore,” said Joan Barrett, general manager of KDVR-Channel 31, Denver’s Fox affiliate. “The toughest task in this market is getting people to look somewhere else and sample a new product.”

    Barrett has reason to celebrate. KDVR notched historic gains in May, beating out KCNC-Channel 4 at 6 a.m., 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekdays among viewers age 25-54. That followed seven consecutive periods of ratings growth for KDVR, which has invested heavily in its Problem Solvers and Pinpoint Weather brands — including tried-and-true gimmicks such as its flashy Weather Beast, a 360-horsepower, 20-foot-long truck mounted with a half-dozen cameras.

    KDVR-provided research also shows that Fox31 is the local-TV preference for viewers who have lived in Denver five years or less, with 33.5 percent choosing KDVR versus 26 percent for KUSA and 12 percent for KMGH.

    “(Viewers) aren’t choosing based on what their parents watched,” Holly Gauntt, vice president of news at KDVR and its sister station KWGN-Channel 2 (a.k.a. The CW), wrote in an email. “The newcomers are switching around, looking for the station that best fits them. That’s a huge opportunity and one of the reasons for our growth. They level the playing field a bit.”

    In the 10 p.m. weekday news competition, KUSA led with a 3.13 rating (up 14 percent), KDVR was second with a 1.23 rating (up 23 percent), KCNC was third with 1.10 (down 18 percent), and KMGH trailed with a 0.90 (down 6 percent), according to May sweeps numbers, which help set advertising rates.

    KDVR and KWGN staffers credit their gains with experiments such as launching newscasts in new time periods, like the 11 p.m. on Channel 2, or starting newscasts in time periods where others have been for decades, like the 4 p.m. slot.

    “We completely re-branded and overhauled the newscasts on the KWGN side and we’re seeing nice growth in less than a year,” Gauntt wrote. “In a time when most stations are letting veteran anchors go, we’re bringing them back.”

    In KWGN’s case, that means familiar faces such as Mike Landess and Ernie Bjorkman.

    Mike Landess and Deborah Takahara. Anchor ...

    John Leyba, The Denver Post

    Mike Landess and Deborah Takahara. Anchor the 4pm newscast on Channel 2 News on June 12, 2017.

    “I don’t understand why some think older journalists can’t succeed on all platforms,” Gauntt wrote, in what could be interpreted as a dig at KUSA losing Adele Arakawa. “We’ve done a good job building a well-rounded team of journalists who see the news through completely different lenses. That’s vital in a newsroom. And they understand how crucial digital is and they engage.”

    In addition to popular video content such as “Serving Those Who Serve,” which focuses on stories of Colorado veterans and military, KDVR is now offering weather forecasts on Amazon’s voice-activated Alexa software, which powers its standalone Echo device.

    “We also watch how our kids are consuming content,” said KDVR’s Barrett. “My kids were in a college dorm room and didn’t sign up for cable. They use their TV for gaming.”

    Video remains a uniquely intimate format — whatever its delivery method — and modern TV news is well-suited for technological change, given its modular format of segments broken up into easily shared digital video clips.

    “Times change. People move on and retire. That’s no different today than it was 25 or 30 years ago,” said KUSA’s Steve Carter. “What’s different now is that we have more newscasts and content. We’ve had to hire more people. There’s so much more choice in how people get information.”

    In the fall KUSA’s parent company, TEGNA, will launch a nationally syndicated news program based in Denver called “Daily Blast Live,” which benefits KUSA as yet another content stream in its thirst for original, wholly owned programming.

    It will be the only nationally syndicated show that runs live in every market and time zone that it airs, “providing audiences across America with the unique opportunity to interact live with the show and its hosts,” according to a news release.

    “We always pay attention to what everyone else is doing, but ultimately we have to look in the mirror every day and say, ‘What are we doing to be more innovative?’ ” said Moreno, KUSA’s news director. “It can be absolutely mentally exhausting when you’re trying to transform everything you do. But I will never be complacent … and I’m not going to let my guard down.”

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