Local news media war brewing in Canada

Local newscasts are the must-have media properties of the season

Bell dominates with CP24, but Rogers and Shaw ready to fight back

The following is an excerpt from “The Local News War Will Be Televised” by Chris Powell

With CTV and Citytv locked in a hard-fought battle for primetime viewers, and long-time combatants TSN and Sportsnet squaring off in a battle for similarly lucrative sports territory, Rogers Media has opened up yet another front in its increasingly antagonistic war with Bell Media: local news.

On Oct. 3, Rogers plans to launch a 24-hour news service for the Toronto market called CityNews Channel to challenge Bell’s CP24. Announcing the service in late May, Rogers Broadcasting president Scott Moore proclaimed it a “destination local news channel.”

Merging broadcast and print
CityNews Channel, says Moore, will take advantage of Rogers Media’s local news “backbone” in Toronto—a group of well-branded, well-established assets that include Citytv, the all-news radio station 680 News and national newsweekly Maclean’s—and will boast what is described as an “enriched and interactive” screen format (the details of which have yet to be finalized).

“In many ways, this is an evolution of our two broadcast news brands, and looking for strong and smart ways to bring in not only the print news brand, but how we morph this into digital,” says Moore.

Rogers has invested “well into seven figures” on CityNews, but the company is convinced that Citytv’s strong local news heritage (“Everywhere!”) and the news gathering capabilities of both 680 News and Maclean’s will be a boon for the fledgling channel.

The CityNews Channel will use a 30-minute news wheel format, similar to that employed by its radio counterpart 680 News (traffic and weather on the “1s”). While the service will show Citytv’s Breakfast Television and its CityNews at Six newscast, Moore says it will be “very careful” about when—and how—it deviates from the news wheel template.

“We want to be very disciplined in how often we break away from that format, because we think that’s going to be our competitive advantage,” says Moore.

Janice Neil, a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, agrees that City’s traditional strength in local news should be a major asset for CityNews.

“City, to my mind, probably has the best brand of all the broadcasters in terms of local television,” says Neil, who spent 20 years in broadcast journalism with organizations including CBC and TVO. “If the new 24-hour channel is aligned with City, I think it’s going to have a huge advantage because it conjures up all of those values Rogers will be seeking when trying to do 24-hour news.”

The potential downside for the new service, she says, is that unlike CP24, it doesn’t have the resources of a national news network like CTV to use in news gathering and dissemination. “How they’re going to be able to cover stories that aren’t of their own sourcing is going to be interesting,” she says. A key factor in differentiating itself from CP24, she says, will be demonstrating an “intensity” to local news not shown by its competitor.

The launch heralds yet another serious push by Rogers into Bell Media-dominated territory, but if executives at the latter have any concerns about the upstart service’s possible impact on CP24, they’re not acknowledging it publicly.

“CP24 has established itself as the place to go for breaking news, and we’re not making any major changes,” says CTV News president Wendy Freeman. “The brand is highly recognized by our viewers, advertisers and our sponsors.

“It’s always great to have competition, but we’ve been in the market a long time.”

According to Freeman, CP24 boasts a “winning formula” that draws up to 4 million viewers 2+ in a typical week, more than 1 million for its breakfast show, CP24 Breakfast, alone. The channel is no slouch in the ad sales department either, with 2010 ad revenues of $15.1 million representing a 27.2% increase over the previous year.

Look beyond the rhetoric, however, and there are indications that Bell Media is girding for a lengthy battle with the Rogers upstart. In June, Freeman announced that the network’s vice-president of news, Joanne MacDonald, had assumed an additional role as general manager of CP24, assuming permanent responsibility for the “operations and strategic vision” of the channel.

There have also been a flurry of news releases from Bell Media’s well-orchestrated publicity department trumpeting the company’s local news accomplishments, and in July it announced that former Global National anchor Kevin Newman had joined the company in the dual role of co-host of news program Question Period and as a so-called “digital news evangelist.”

Florence Ng, president of video and audio investments at ZenithOptimedia Canada, says Rogers will face the difficult task of changing the viewing habits of consumers.

“People tend to be quite loyal in terms of their news vehicle selection. If they’re used to watching CP24, they’ll likely continue,” she says.

“How is Rogers going to convince viewers to make the switch? If I was to look at it from an advertising standpoint… it boils down to their content, their format, their viewing. Do they capture the audience to make it viable as an advertising vehicle? If the audience level is low, there is no reason why we would divert funds from the other properties and go to Rogers.”

Not to be overlooked in the local news market is Shaw Media, which has plans to invest $53 million in its news division over the next six years, according to vice-president of news Troy Reeb.

The bulk of that investment, says Reeb, will come in morning news—including new morning shows in Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax–and expanded morning shows in Calgary and Edmonton. “It’s really quite a substantial investment, right across the country, to turn us into an organization that offers news 24/7,” says Reeb.

Studies have shown that investing in local news is also good business. A December 2010 study conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates on behalf of Hearst Television entitled “Local News Advertising Positioning Opportunities” found that 49% of the 2,500 respondents aged 25 to 54 listed watching local news as a major part of their daily routine—ahead of primetime sitcoms and dramas (47%), primetime reality shows (42%) and cable news (34%)—and 81% listed local news as their most important TV news source.

Local news, the report concluded, is more “DVR-proof” than other programming, particularly dramas and sitcoms, exceeds all other forms of TV programming in terms of generating advertising awareness, and is third behind informational talk shows and entertainment talk shows in its ability to drive purchase.

To read all of Chris Powell’s “The Local News War Will Be Televised,” pick up the Aug. 1 issue of Marketing.

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