SchardtMEDIA Format Insights: Newscasts and Documentary Specials

March 30, 2006

SchardtMEDIA conducted an informal survey in the wake of KUOW’s decision to mandate a newscast hole for all programming on the station. Program Director Jeff Hansen, citing KUOW’s position as the #1 ranked news station in Seattle, believes the station has the responsibility to provide listeners with round-the-clock news updates and had proactively notified outside producers of this new format requirement. You can read Hansen’s statement on the Public Radio Exchange.

One SchardtMEDIA client tried to meet this demand by providing, for the first time, a 3 minute hole for stations to insert the first half of the newscast. SchardtMEDIA’s Joan Roman spoke to a range of station PD’s – from major markets to state networks, to middle market and small/community radio stations – to learn how important it was to them that documentary specials include a newscast cutaway. Our intention was to gain broader perspective on this critical format issue as independent and station-based producers seek to take long-form programs to the national marketplace. Does the decision that is right for Seattle apply to other stations as well? Is there a consensus on the issue?

Be mindful that the following insights which summarize our findings pertain to documentary specials only, not regularly scheduled or prime time news programming. Also, we did not specifically ask about the 20/40 clock, though some station PD’s raised this as a key issue.

Here are four insights for producers:

Newscast compatibility is not a make-it/break-it issue. With few exceptions, newscast compatibility (providing a break from :01 to :06) is not a strong requirement for station gatekeepers who are considering airing a special/documentary program. One key reason cited repeatedly by those we spoke with is that most stations run documentary specials on Sunday evenings, or off-peak hours when the news cycle is slower. A number of PD’s specifically stated that a newscast dropped right at the start of a program, after the billboard, “breaks the flow” of the program and doesn’t make sense from a programming standpoint.

Adopt a 20/40 format, if possible.
It appears more important, especially to bigger stations, to provide breaks at approximately :20 and :40, and leave at least a minute at the end of the program. Stations need to be able to get their local announcements and underwriting credits in and this has become the industry standard.

Offer flexibility. If a broadcast special is going to be newscast compatible, some PD’s suggested that producers provide alternative fill for the 5 minute slot, or make sure that the :00-:01 billboard at the top flows right into the program at :06. This will allow stations to skip the newscast segment and go straight into the program from the billboard. We learned, too, that when a newscast hole is provided, a number of stations don’t use the time for a newscast at all, but rather insert local programming or announcements.

Communicate. Nothing is absolute. What works well in Seattle does not necessarily work in other markets and issues related to format, especially in the category of documentary specials, is always subject to the ebb and flow of the larger programming environment. If news is breaking or there is an event of far-reaching significance happening at the time a broadcast special is offered, a newscast will most likely be more important to a station and probably strengthen the appeal of your program with gatekeepers. The bottom line is that it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of stations. Call around, have some conversations to check on assumptions before you set your format in stone.

For me, it’s either a 5:00 minute space or nothing at all. If a program has a short newscast hole, (“:01-:03) that will be a deal breaker for me. —Abby Goldstein, PD at KERA/Dallas

I am not a real fan of NPR news 24/7 just for the sake of news. In a block of entertainment programming, it sounds odd to have a newscast in the middle of a music show, after a tease. If there is a newscast, my preference is for consistency, and for the entire program to start after the newscast. —Michael Black, GM at WEOS/Geneva NY

Absolutes are dangerous. They provide false comfort. Listeners live in an on-demand world. They want to know that when something significant happens, we’ll be there in some way. And a newscast at the top of the hour doesn’t make that case for me. I could provide a newscast every hour of every day and still fall short of the mark in creating real news service. We should be pushing the networks to provide more and better tools to respond to events and breaking news. —Dean Cappello, VP Programming at WNYC/NY

Actually, I prefer documentaries NOT be newscast compatible… when the programs have a newscast hole in them, we have to do production work to remove them…, and then find appropriate fill music for the end of the show. —Vincent Duffy, PD at WKSU/Kent OH

A 5 minute news hole is desirable to us, but not key. Content is key. I also recommend internal breaks, at approximately 20-past and 40-past the hour. NPR has established this “standard” if you will, and most now follow it. It allows stations to insert weather, local underwriting, and station promotion… all necessary elements in today’s world. —Peter Lydotes, Director of Operations at WBUR/Boston MA