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NewscastingDetroit News: Motor City Meltdown?

In a move that’s become increasingly common across the nation’s television landscape, Viacom pulled the plug on news operations at its two Detroit stations in early December. In place of its newscast, WWJ (CBS) is showing reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. WKBD (UPN), on the other hand, still has news, it’s just being produced by Scripps Howard-owned WXYZ, an ABC affiliate.

That’s right: A station that technically rivals WWJ is producing a newscast for it. The WXYZ “Action News Team” has taken over the hour-long 10 p.m. newscast on WWJ. Linda Danna, vice president and general manager of WKBD, says her station made the move to team with WXYZ because of its prestige in the market. “It was a way to bring a very high-quality product to the viewers,” she said. WXYZ also happens to have one of the highest-rated newscasts in the Detroit market: In November, its 10 p.m. newscast averaged a 10.6 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research. By contrast, WKBD’s November average was 2.8. This fact was not lost on Danna. Commenting on the reason WKBD chose to shutter news, she said, “The market didn’t respond in terms of ratings.”

According to Matt Friedman, a local TV analyst and vice president of Marx Layne Public Relations, until about a year ago, Viacom was actually considering expanding its news operations at WWJ and WKBD. But recently, under newly appointed upper management, the media giant decided, as Friedman put it, that it “wasn’t financially feasible to keep up news operations at the Detroit stations.”

WWJ also lost the broadcast rights to the Detroit Red Wings hockey games last year. The loss of the station’s main newscast lead-in hammered the nail in the coffin of its news operations.

Having WXYZ produce WWJ’s news is a financial boon to both stations: most likely, they have cut a deal to split ad revenues, and Viacom will save millions on production costs.

The question remains as to how this move will affect viewers and other television stations in Detroit. According to Deborah Collura, news director at WDIV, the NBC affiliate and news leader in Detroit, it will affect competition between stations more than viewers’ access to local news. “It takes the monopoly away from Fox 2 at 10 o’clock,” she said, referring to WJBK’s top-rated newscast at 10 p.m., which averaged double the ratings points over the now-defunct WKBD 10 p.m. newscast.

Friedman acknowledged that having only three broadcast news outlets in Detroit might impair viewers’ access to diverse sources of information, but that this situation was a result of market forces. “It would be nice to have a fourth news operation in the market, but if the ad revenue and viewers can’t support it, it’s not going to happen.”