Tribune to shake up TV news with anchor-free format

Tribune is gearing up for the rollout of a radical, anchor- and reporter-free overhaul of its local newscasts in some markets. The first version of the “NewsFix” format will be at KIAH-TV in Houston, which is tentatively targeting an October launch.

The idea is the brainchild of Lee Abrams, former programming chief at XM Satellite Radio and now Tribune’s chief innovations officer. He said he would blow up the traditional television newscast with the NewsFix project. It is an experiment, he noted, in markets where stations are struggling with traditional newscasts and have little to lose by taking a leap into uncharted waters.

There are no plans to implement the format in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, where Tribune’s newscasts are competitive. The prototype, though, is produced with nationally and New York-oriented stories.

The format plays as if the viewer is surfing the Internet, with voice-over narration of a rapid-fire series of pretaped stories, video clips and images. There’s no anchor desk and no traditional reports from on-air correspondents.

The script also represents a major departure from news conventions with a conversational style that takes an often irreverent, snarky tone in describing the details of news stories. The narration is augmented with soundtrack music, on-screen graphics and effects. There’s a commentary segment for user-generated video, and there are cut-ins for informational segments delivered by local officials and personalities.

“We’re trying to get away from Barbie and Ken sitting behind a desk chitchatting with each other with their nice teeth,” Abrams told “Daily Variety.” He emphasized that NewsFix is not driven by cost-cutting concerns, but by the desire to shake up what he sees as an ossified format for stations that don’t have a strong history in local news.

KIAH’s 9 p.m. newscast at times has drawn as few as 12,000 viewers — minuscule in a market that encompasses about 2 million viewers. Some reporters are likely to continue with the station’s news department, but work within the video vérité NewsFix format rather than doing traditional reporting.

The push for NewsFix comes as most of Tribune’s 23 TV stations are in a period of upbeat growth in ratings in key time periods and revenue gains as the local advertising market recovers after being hammered for the past two years by the recession. Tribune’s stations are on track to generate more than $1 billion in operating revenue for 2010, which will mark the first time since 2007 that the group has hit the $1 billion mark.

The TV stations and WGN America are Tribune’s biggest earners as the company continues in a complex bankruptcy proceeding. The reorganization has been delayed by intense wrangling with creditors and lenders. Tribune was left with $13 billion in debt after its sale, forcing the bankruptcy filing in December 2008. Despite the many twists and turns in the proceedings, Tribune still expects to emerge from Chapter 11 by year’s end.

Tribune execs clearly see the TV assets as the company’s best hope for driving a post-bankruptcy turnaround. Local news is typically a major profit center for stations, which is why Abrams has devoted so much time to devising a new strategy for the group’s underperforming stations.