Pandemic's Impact On Media: TV Viewing Up, Advertising Revenues Down, No Layoffs

May 14, 2020

Local TV news ratings have dramatically increased while we're stuck at home – but TV stations haven't been able to cash in much, since many of the businesses which advertised were closed the past two months. 

And the worst may be yet to come.

These are some things I learned from Cincinnati television station managers Debbie Bush, WXIX-TV vice president and general manager; Branden Frantz, WLWT-TV president and general manager; Jeff Brogan, WCPO-TV vice president and general manager, and Jon Lawhead, general manger of WKRC-TV and WSTR-TV, and a regional manager for Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Branden Frantz, WLWT-TV president and general manager.
Credit Courtesy WLWT-TV

"Unfortunately, I think we are only in the top of the fourth inning here. I believe the economic conditions before us today have not bottomed out – although I hope I am wrong," Frantz says.

"As far as local news, the viewing levels of TV news have really increased significantly during this time. Surprisingly, the younger 18-34 demo has grown more than most," says Lawhead about the age group which doesn't have a large local news habit. Maybe the pandemic will be transformative for them?

"Hopefully, they are liking what they see and will stay around," Lawhead says.

Fox 19 Now newscast ratings "have seen a dramatic increase in viewers during the crisis," Bush says. WLWT-TV "has seen audiences grow by double digits in nearly every newscast, along with major increases on digital platforms that are achieving historic highs," Frantz says.

None of the TV stations have done furloughs or job eliminations, unlike some radio stations and the Enquirer, as I reported last week.  WLW-AM furloughed sports reporter-producer Bill "Seg" Dennison, Aand WREW-FM (MIX 94.9)  cut midday DJ/production director Ray Anderson.

Here's the look at Cincinnati television:

WHEN METEOROLOGISTS WILL RETURN TO BROADCAST FROM THE STATION

BUSH, WXIX: "We’re not sure about the timeline – and we’re in no hurry. It’s important to us to keep our employees safe. The good news is Steve Horstmeyer has access to all our high-tech tools right from home, so we’re not missing a beat.  In fact, Steve even has his own green screen at home! That said, we do miss having him at the station and I know he misses being here."

Jon Lawhead, general manger of WKRC-TV and WSTR-TV, and a regional manager for Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Credit Courtesy WKRC-TV

LAWHEAD, WKRC: "I don’t have a date yet but I expect we’ll have everyone back in the studio in a couple of weeks."

FRANTZ, WLWT: "Our decision was ultimately guided by two factors: the health and well-being of our staff, and continuity and presentation of the product. For us, the decision to keep meteorologists in the office was really no different than that of our frontline anchors. Because of the significant moves we were able to quickly make to protect our limited staff members still in the building, drastically reducing on-site traffic and providing more significant physical and scheduling distance, we felt the continuity of our product did not have to be compromised – especially with such a necessary and vital piece of our overall news presentation. If the need arises, we have always been prepared to deploy our entire team to the field. Having a 68,000-square-foot building allows us to isolate and quarantine all talent left in the building as to never cross paths."

OTHER STAFFERS WORKING FROM HOME

Jeff Brogran, WCPO-TV vice president and general manager
Credit Courtesy WCPO-TV

BROGAN, WCPO: "In terms of employees returning to the office, we will continue to put their health and safety as the priority of our business operations. We're able to continue to operate at a high level, so there isn't a rush to get them back into the building.

"I have been humbled by the amazing work our team has done since the COVID-19 crisis affected our community and our operations. The team has managed to serve our audiences across platforms, deliver every newscast and go above and beyond on coverage with our new series:  'We're Open,' 'Acts of Kindness' and The Rebound.' "

BUSH, WXIX: "We have other station employees working from home, including producers, reporters, marketing and sales staff.  They are all anxious to get back to the station, but they are also doing an amazing job from home."

HAVE YOU DONE ANY LAYOFFS OR FURLOUGHS SINCE THE STAY-AT-HOME ORDER IN MARCH? IF ADVERTISING DOESN'T REBOUND, DO YOU EXPECT ANY THIS QUARTER OR NEXT QUARTER?

BUSH, WXIX: "No, we haven't had any layoffs or furloughs. We aren’t expecting any in the future. See this article about Grey Television President and CEO Hilton J. Howell Jr."

LAWHEAD, WKRC: "Sinclair has not had any furloughs, eliminated positions or had any layoffs. I think advertising will rebound once the economy is opened back up.  Looking ahead to third and fourth quarter, we've had no discussions about layoffs."

FRANTZ, WLWT: "We have not done layoffs or furloughs and have not considered this as an option.  In fact, we have some key positions still open which I hope to fill in the next few weeks. We have a very strong ownership with the Hearst Corporation, and healthy support system from Hearst Television, and are committed to doing the right thing on behalf of our viewers, our clients and our valued employees."

WHEN SUNDAY NIGHT LOCAL SPORTS SHOWS COULD RESUME

Credit Courtesy WCPO-TV

BROGAN, WCPO: "Sports of All Sorts will return when sports return."

FRANTZ, WLWT: "Your guess is as good as mine on when Sports Rock will resume. Until such time that sporting events are played in a consistent manner, content will drive this decision. As it stands, we will simply extend late news each Sunday by 30 minutes and provide greater context for local stories that impact those in our community."

BUSH, WXIX: "We are still doing the Final Quarter. In fact, Joe Danneman and Jeremy Rauch are bringing us some of the most memorable stories we’ve seen during this crisis. Even though sports action is not happening, there are still plenty of important sports stories unfolding every day with the Bengals, Reds, MLS and our college teams."

Credit Courtesy WKRC-TV

LAWHEAD, WKRC: "Sports Authority will resume when we have some sports to report on. Hard to say when that will happen. Baseball is still in planning mode. Football will hopefully start on time. Fans are really excited about the Bengals and are ready for the season. We haven’t cancelled or postponed any other local shows."

PROGRAMMING CHANGES DURING THE PANDEMIC

BROGAN, WCPO: "We’ve added a couple of weekly shows from our company that help viewers get important information (Coronavirus: The Rundown, Sundays at 11:30 p.m.) and inspire them (Good to Know, Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 3 a.m.) during this difficult time."

FRANTZ, WLWT: "The Flying Pig Special was cancelled. We are now planning for an October broadcast at this point. We have added local content opportunities the last two months. In addition to Rossen Reports, the Stitch Mother’s Day Special, extended local news opportunities on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. as well as the Sports Rock displacement, we will only continue to enhance our local content fingerprint moving forward."

MORE VIEWERS MEANS BIGGER RATINGS

WXIX-TV's anchor team (from left) Joe Danneman, Rob Williams, Tricia Macke and Steve Horstmeyer.
Credit Courtesy WXIX-TV

BUSH, WXIX: "We have seen a dramatic increase in viewers during this crisis. In fact, Fox 19 Now continues to be No. 1 with adults age 25-54 both in the morning and at night. We haven't received the official April demo numbers (preliminary numbers are good for us – even No. 1 at 11 p.m….

"In demographics, we continue to be No. 1 in the mornings from 6 a.m. through 11 a.m. – and our new afternoon newscasts continue to grow. Our 10 p.m. news continues to dominate and beats all late-night newscasts. Our 11 p.m. was No. 2 in the time period for March. Viewers continue to see our aggressive coverage on stories related to the pandemic and other stories affecting the Tri-State. Behind the scenes, we have become quite creative in how we gather and deliver the news. Much of this innovation will continue and be improved upon in the long term."

FRANTZ, WLWT:  "In the last few weeks, we have seen study after study source local broadcast as well as all of our distribution channels as the most influential factor in viewers' lives today. People want timely information to be better prepared and informed to keep their families safe. We have seen broadcast media reliance expanding throughout this pandemic and a noted resurgence of viewers across all demographic targets, but even younger audiences. 

"Today, local news has become the primary destination for the most trusted and relevant information - and cited that as many as 91% are using at least one local news platform: linear TV, website, local news app.  WLWT has seen audiences grow by double digits in nearly every newscast (adults ages 25-54 April Nielsen saw WLWT No. 1 at 4:30-7 a.m.; 6 p.m.; and 11 p.m.) along with major increases on digital platforms that are achieving historic highs.

"In the end, I believe this resurgence in consumer behavior will have a positive benefit for local broadcast news outlets. If nothing else, we all have a unique opportunity today to build a brand and a bond with our current viewers and clientele, but also work tirelessly to reach difficult and inconsistent viewers with the goal to retain post COVID."

Kyle Inskeep and Paul Toti were named WKRC-TV's main anchor team in March.
Credit Courtesy WKRC-TV

LAWHEAD, WKRC:  "As far as local news, the viewing levels of TV news have really increased significantly during this time. Surprisingly, the younger 18-34 demo has grown more than most. Hopefully, they are liking what they see and will stay around."

BIGGER RATINGS DON'T MEAN MORE MONEY

FRANTZ, WLWT: "No doubt from a financial impact, we are going to feel this one for a long time and the recovery will presumably be gradual. In the end, some in the broadcast space have already made difficult decisions, while I suspect in the coming months, more will occur.

WLWT-TV's anchor team (from left) George Vogel, Mike Dardis, Sheree Paolello and Kevin Robinson.
Credit Courtesy WLWT-TV

"I believe there are two factors this year that will impact the overall broadcast industry as it relates to overall operations. First, the length of the shutdown and reopening process, as well as the general health of our community. Second, what factor political (advertising) may play in the state of Ohio. The Television Bureau of Advertising recently cited they are still projecting political revenues to top $3.2 to $3.3 billion nationwide (which would be a record). If Ohio becomes a targeted state for the presidential election, this revenue lift could help support the gaps in core losses. To date, there are mixed opinions on how this will unfold.

"The tough part is that while demand from ad supported revenue has declined, TV news viewing is on fire as viewers are hunkered down following the shelter in place order."

LAWHEAD, WKRC: "It's hard to say what the long term impact will be. On TV revenue, I think once advertisers get back into a positive cash flow position, then we should come out of this OK."

BROGAN, WCPO: "As for the long term impact to our business – I'd refer you to an interview Adam Symson, Scripps President and CEO had with TVNewsCheck recently."

HOW DOING BUSINESS HAS CHANGED

LAWHEAD, WKRC: "We proved we can be very nimble. At the beginning of this, we had technological challenges to overcome with newscasts having to go mobile. I think for the most part we overcame those challenges and have delivered pretty respectable newscasts. And the ratings are up."

FRANTZ, WLWT: "There have been a number of key learnings since mid-March that have challenged and in some cases surprised us. Pre-COVID, we never really considered significant remote working options, virtual meetings and sales calls or newsgathering. For the last 7-8 weeks, those things that have never been considered are now standard operating procedure. The speed that our team moved – and the calm, strategic execution – was truly impressive. Technology allows us to do so many more things today than if we were dealing with this even a decade ago. We have redundancies for nearly every business operation to ensure we are able to keep employees safe, produce local news content as well as service every aspect for our valued client base.

"For what it is worth, all of this was done as we have been relocated on a temporary set since the beginning of March while the new set is being built (which debuted this week).

"Perhaps the toughest part of this process and new environment has been the psychological adjustments our team has had to make. Not being able to walk down the hall to have a conversation face-to-face, staff gatherings, sweeps celebrations or simple meetings around a table that we all took for granted has certainly been an adjustment. I look forward to the day we can safely welcome our team back into the building and return to some sense of normalcy. Until that happens, we look forward to continued learning and growing together as a team with a focus on serving this community."