In a significant move as the analog shutdown approaches, NBC Universal announced plans last week to turn WNBC-TV in New York into a 24-hour local cable news channel. If the plan is a success, the network will do the same with its O&O stations in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
As the network experiments with “hyper-localism,” it will de-emphasize the identity of its flagship station, WNBC, Channel 4, rechristening it a “content center” and making it one part of a larger media presence. The new channel will provide 24-hour local news coverage of the New York region, including New Jersey and Connecticut.
NBC plans to promote the channel well beyond television and the Web, extending it to places like gas pumps and the back seats of taxicabs. NBC will take WNBC’s name off the Web site —wnbc.com — simply calling it NBC New York. Local news will still be shown on Channel 4.
The new channel will be available to customers who have digital service on cable systems in the New York City area, including Time Warner, Cablevision and Comcast. It is scheduled to begin in November and will involve a complete redesign of the 6th and 7th floor offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, NBC’s Manhattan headquarters.
NBC announced the restructuring to WNBC employees last week at a staff meeting. The meeting was led by John Wallace, formerly president of NBC’s owned-and-operated stations but now president for local media, a change in titles that signifies how the network is de-emphasizing local broadcasting.
Wallace told employees that the changes would not necessarily entail layoffs, but would require extensive retraining for many producers and other employees, who may have to work different shifts.
NBC owns 10 stations, with those in Miami and Hartford for sale. The reasons for reshaping WNBC are tied to the coming expansion in digital capacity for local broadcasters, as well as the sharp decline in profitability for local stations.
Wallace told the “New York Times” that local television “has a perception issue right now as to whether it is a sustainable business long term.” Once a huge generator of cash for media companies, local stations now have an “eroding and aging” audience and have become a “slow-growth business.”
Although WNBC will continue to broadcast local news, Wallace told the newspaper that the new structure “will be organized around the content, not the show,” with an effort concentrated on creating many news segments instead of one news program. The Channel 4 news will be simulcast on the new 24-hour news channel, which will be called New York’s Newschannel.
Providing around-the-clock live news will not require NBC to hire more employees for the new channel, Wallace said. Instead, the network plans to rely on expanding the duties of its present staff members, which Wallace called “a workflow change.”
For example, news producers, whose previous focus had been “getting the show on the air at the assigned time,” will be retrained to produce video segments instead of shows, with the goal being to spread the segments across various local NBC platforms, be they the news channel, the Web site or TV for taxis.
Wallace said that he was unsure how WNBC employees would react to the redefinition of their roles and the need to be retrained, though he expected “some natural resistance that comes with any type of change.”
NBC also announced that it will relocate its non-NBC operations, including the main offices of cable channels like USA and Bravo, out of the NBC Universal headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center, to a still unselected office building. He said the network is running out of space at its headquarters.
The move, to take place in 2009, will consolidate operations at three New York offices: 437 Madison Avenue, 2 Park Avenue and Chelsea Market. All NBC operations, including news and late-night programming, will remain at 30 Rock.