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WTTA-Ch. 38 is joining other cities' stations to offer Sinclair Broadcasting's half-canned, half-local 10 p.m. reports. Its debut should be August.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published July 1, 2003

TAMPA - The set feels a bit futuristic, featuring a curved, wooden desk placed before a blue-green background with the blurred names of area communities barely legible along the rear wall. Just behind the desk is a collection of three video monitors attached vertically to a pole, lending a sleek, modern feel.

But one vacancy seemed particularly telling during a visit earlier this month to the newly built set for WTTA-Ch. 38's soon-to-air 10 p.m. newscast: the anchor chair.

Station officials had hoped former WFTS-Ch. 28 weekend anchor Doug Smith would return to the Tampa Bay area as their main face. But Smith turned down their offer June 20, saying he "didn't have the comfort level" he wanted with the company. (Former Bay News 9 anchor Susan Casper will appear as the station's weekend anchor and as a reporter some weekdays.)

This is not great news for an operation that once had hoped to debut its hour-long broadcast in early June. Now the target date has moved to early or mid August as news manager Teresa Mallea considers her next choice (perhaps she'll consult the more than 1,000 applications, stuffed into a file folder several inches high, that have come into the station).

When it does debut, WTTA's broadcast will be the WB affiliate's first local news program. And it will mark the largest TV market yet to feature owner Sinclair Broadcasting Group's "News Central" concept, where nearly half the newscast is provided by Sinclair's headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md.

In Tampa, that means WTTA's show will feature national news reports and weather delivered from Maryland, with sports and area news to be reported locally. If newscasts in cities where Sinclair already presents the blended broadcast are any indication - cities such sa Flint, Mich., Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh - viewers will a have tough time discerning the local content from nationally provided material.

Which raises an important question: Can a news department with one-third the personnel of competing stations compete with four network affiliates and a 24-hour local cable newschannel?

Mallea, who came to WTTA from the Orlando 24-hour cable newschannel Central Florida News 13, thinks so.

"As a start-up operation, we know we have to hit the ground running. ... (But) it's not our goal to chase every breaking story," said the manager, a graduate from the University of South Florida's journalism program who once worked at local CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10. "At 10 p.m., you want something that's comprehensive - and we want to make an impression with something new."

With 22 staffers - five are reporters, including two anchor/reporters - that means lots of double duty. During one visit to WTTA's headquarters at Woodland Corporate Center in Town 'N Country, staffers were marveling over new computer software that allows them to edit video footage at their desks, consolidating work that might be done by several staffers at other stations.

Smith, now working as managing editor overseeing the investigative unit at WFTV in Orlando, said WTTA wanted him to serve as main anchor and to direct investigative projects for the station. .

It's all part of Sinclair's strategy, which involves paring down costs by sharing news content, consolidating jobs and paying lower salaries. Hiring staffers with experience locally - some of WTTA's behind-the-scenes staffers also come from other area TV news shops - helps the operation ramp up quickly.

Julie Nelson, WTTA's general manager, isn't shy about admitting a central inspiration for the new newscast: advertising.

About 30 percent of advertisers don't even consider buying time on TV stations without newscasts, Nelson said. WTTA's newscast will give her salespeople access to those clients, while also providing a more visible local identity for a station once known as a home for infomercials and low-budget programming.

The idea of a 10 p.m. newscast isn't new to WTTA. Nelson said the station has tried for years to develop a late-night news program - considering plans to build a newscast from scratch (too expensive) and entertaining offers from other local stations to create a newscast for its air.

"We found you can't farm out news. ... You don't want to insult your viewers or your clients," she said, shrugging off criticisms that Sinclair is creating a less substantive newscast through its News Central approach. "This is a better product than we could have done on our own."

But skeptics have a lot of questions.

First, there's the history. Nearly three years ago, WFLA-Ch. 8 developed separate news broadcasts for local Pax-TV affiliate WXPX-Ch. 66 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., but low viewership helped scuttle that idea. Now Pax just re-airs newscasts previously seen on WFLA.

WTOG-Ch. 44 also once had a full news department producing a 10 p.m. newscast. But owner Paramount eventually decided to close the news department and end the newscast. Can Sinclair succeed where these others have failed?

And there's the weather thing. Sinclair News Central weather forecasters often tape their reports in advance; a risky move for an area such as Tampa Bay, where conditions can change rapidly and competitors will have three or four meteorologists available for emergencies.

WTTA's broadcasts also will feature commentaries from Mark Hyman - Sinclair's vice president of corporate relations and chief lobbyist - showcasing his right-leaning opinions in a style that seems reminiscent of Fox News Channel.

Still, some of WTTA's potential competitors aren't slinging arrows just yet.

"In this day and age, when you have news departments closing up ... it's narrow-minded to criticize anyone who will be adding news," said Elliott Wiser, general manager at Bright House Networks' 24-hour cable newschannel, Bay News 9, which has a 10 p.m. newscast that will compete with WTTA's show.

Wiser, who built Bay News 9 from scratch nearly six years ago, remembered how area TV news directors scoffed at his plans for a new cable newschannel.

"It's too early yet to criticize them," the general manager said of WTTA. He has allowed Casper to work at WTTA, despite a continuing contract at Bay News 9 (Casper, who left Bay News 9 last year hoping to move to a bigger market, said she has decided to stay in Tampa).

Still, the problems for viewers may not come if WTTA fails, but if it succeeds.

Sure, if Sinclair follows through on its plans to bring newscasts to about half of the 61 stations it owns, many communities will see an extra news voice added to their media mix. But here in the Tampa Bay area, it's tough to imagine how WTTA's staff will come up with stories that five other local TV news departments missed.

And if it turns a profit by centralizing some news operations in a distant city - Nelson said WTTA's newscast can make money just by maintaining the ratings the station now earns at 10 p.m. - will it be long before another ownership chain follows suit?

Could viewers wind up facing a host of sort-of-local newscasts with elements piped in from distant corporate centers without their knowledge?

Nelson and Mallea - who form the only all-female general manager/news manager team in the Tampa Bay market - urged naysayers to hold their criticisms until they see the newscast.

"Watch us, and you'll see that that (fears of watered-down news) will not be the case," Mallea said. "Everybody's trying to figure out how to cut costs and save the industry. If what we're doing forces other companies to sit down and find cost benefits to serve the viewer better ... that's a wonderful thing."

- Material from Times Wires was used in this report. To reach Eric Deggans, call 727 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at http://www.sptimes.com

[Last modified July 1, 2003, 13:48:48]


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