Building Viewership With News Topicals, Part 1

Tonight at 11, there’s a big change in the weather forecast.

That’s one of the better 4-second news topicals you can write.

Granted, not one you can use every night, only when conditions warrant, yet weather is the main reason people watch local news, and a ‘change’ in the forecast creates a thirst for news.

News topicals, those ubiquitous promos embedded in programming enticing viewers to watch the next newscast, have been a staple of local TV news since forever.

Effective topical news promotion can lead to sampling, and during sweeps, possibly into ratings.

This week, in a five-part series, Market Share focuses on TV stations’ news topicals.

You’ll hear from veteran creative services directors and writer/producers from across the country including Russ Nelligan from WCVB Boston; David Hershey, KTVT Dallas; Sean Garcia, WFTV Orlando; Luanne Stewart, WSMV Nashville; Joany D’Agostino, WDBJ Roanoke, Va.; Council Bradshaw, WJZY, Charlotte, N.C.; Dax Dobbs, KXAN, Austin, Texas; plus several topical writer/producers.

TV stations carve out a sizable chunk of airtime every day for news topicals, from four-second IDs to 30-second spots, time that could be sold to advertisers.

That’s an indication of how much stock station management puts into topicals, and it ought to be an incentive for station marketing managers to use them wisely.

Think of how much revenue a station could generate if it gave that time, just in prime, back to sales?

Russ Nelligan

Many stations air three to six 30-second topicals every weeknight between 7 and 11 p.m. on the East Coast in addition to shorter length versions and IDs.

Do the math, it’s a sizable, financial investment that is expected to generate some results.

As Russ Nelligan, creative services director at WCVB, Hearst’s ABC affiliate in Boston, put it, a good topical “can mean the difference between a rating point in your 11 o’clock news. I mean what price would you put on that over the course of a year?”

How well does your station hold its late news lead-in audience?

Every creative services director agrees they are ‘critical’, ‘very important’, ‘tremendously important’.

Joany D’Agostino

Perhaps Joany D’Agostino, the creative services director at WDBJ, Gray’s CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va., says it best.

“I think news topicals are really important, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it a 9.”

Topicals that air in broadcasting cast a wide net.

You can reach a diverse range of viewers, including non-news viewers, your competitors’ news viewers, news viewers who have no preference, and, of course, your own news viewers.

News topicals that air in prime programming are especially important because HUT levels are high, people are at home watching television and available to watch the late news.

But in the case of late news, it’s not just another newscast that’s your competition.

David Hershey

“Our biggest competitor is going to bed,” says David Hershey, creative services director at KTVT, the CBS O&O in Dallas.

“That’s the biggest challenge, to change their behavior and stay up and watch our news.”

“Our news” being the operative words there.

Because if there’s a big breaking news event in your town, one likely to be covered in every late newscast, your topical can work against you, convincing a viewer to delay going to bed, only to remind them to watch their favorite newscast, which might not be yours.

“We have four very competitive news stations competing for the same eyeballs,” says Hershey, when it comes to recruiting news viewers for KTVT’s late news.

“We have great CBS programming, and they’re good news viewers as well, so we feel as if we’re talking to the right audience, so if we can communicate the right message, we can get them to stick around and watch us. We’re trying to make a sale to watch our late news. It’s that last point of purchase when they’re trying to decide to watch us, watch somebody else, or go to bed.”

“A well-placed topical keeps them there,” says D’Agostino.

“There” meaning TV viewers in their chairs watching your stations’ network programming right into the late news.

“A topical that airs 10 minutes or less prior to a newscast is extremely important,” says Dax Dobbs, KXAN’s marketing director. “Because it’s that last chance to have someone make a decision to stay that extra amount of time to watch the newscast.”

So given their importance, how much oversight, scrutiny and guidance can creative services directors give to topicals?

For the late news topicals, not much.

Most creative services directors and their staff have left the building, leaving the late news topical writer/producers on their own, working in collaboration with the news executives to craft the messages, which are usually edited just minutes before they air.

In Roanoke, D’Agostino says she “has high standards for topicals. It’s really important to me as a manager to make sure I’m involved, and my people are involved with news.”

In Boston, Nelligan says: “I go over topicals every single day, every single topical. Every newscast that’s hit the air, I have seen that topical.”

NOTE: Coming the rest of this week in this special Market Share series on news topicals, the skills needed to be a successful news topical; the content and production of news topicals; and when they should air on your broadcast that’s most effective. Plus, Facebook — how it’s changed the landscape of the topical strategy for some marketing managers, but not all.

2 thoughts on “Building Viewership With News Topicals, Part 1

  1. R.D. Frable

    Your piece was teased with a WPVI (Philadelphia/ABC) trademark. Shouldn’t there have been a piece from them?

    1. Paul Greeley Post author

      That graphic was not used in the article, but was used by one of the editors in the tease piece.


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