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Local TV newscasts expand as economy improves

With advertising revenue increasing, some of America’s television stations are now adding newscasts at 4 a.m., 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. and increasing staff and equipment to support the expanded production.

A report in the “New York Times” said KSDK in St. Louis, an NBC affiliate, is adding newscasts to those time slots next month, giving it six and a half hours of local news each weekday — its highest count to date. The station also is hiring 10 people as well as buying new cameras and ENG trucks.

Three years after the worst advertising recession in decades, more stations are adding newscasts and, in some cases, employees. This is because local TV news is consistently identified in surveys as the top news source for most Americans.

A study commissioned by the FCC concluded earlier this year that although there were pockets of excellence in local news, there was still a heavy reliance on thinly stretched staffs and predictable crime and weather coverage.

The newspaper cited three trends that have benefited the local station business: advertisers have come back, especially in the automotive sector that is so important to local media; cable and satellite companies have agreed in many cases to pay retransmission fees to stations; and, the downturn became a rationale not only to cut costs but also to innovate and experiment within news divisions, which have historically been profit centers for stations.

Steve Ridge of Frank N. Magid Associates, which consults with local stations nationwide, told the “Times” that local TV ad revenues were up almost 25 percent in 2010 compared with 2009, buttressed by political ad spending. So far this year, even without political ads, the owners of several big groups of stations reported slight increases in ad revenues versus 2010.

The benefit of the industry’s bad times, some television executives said, is that it forced a hard look at news operations.

“Our view was that local broadcasting had gone on autopilot,” Dave Lougee, the president of Gannett Broadcasting, which owns KSDK, told the “Times.”

As an industry, Lougee also said, newscasts had “become sort of commoditized and formulaic — arguably in many cases irrelevant.”

KSDK’s anchors and reporters now interact with viewers on Facebook and Twitter, making them more aware of community interests. Some of KSDK’s newscasts now include commentary segments. And, perhaps most important, many employees have been trained to be what Gannett calls multimedia journalists, also known as one-man bands — able to record, produce and report pieces from start to finish.

Gannett also consolidated the graphics and master control operations of its stations to a centralized location, eliminating more workers. Now, Lougee said, with “the cost of technology coming down while the quality is going up,” stations have steered a greater percentage of their staffs toward producing content.

Yet, the “Times” reported that the macroeconomic landscape for stations is still unsettled given the splintering television audience and the emerging Internet sources for news and entertainment that undermine the concept of a one-to-many broadcast. Uncertainty abounds about the reassignment of broadcast spectrum from television to new wireless uses.