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Start spreading the news: ABC focuses on West Coast

January 11, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — If you've tuned into ABC's "World News Tonight" on the West Coast in recent days, you've seen some stories that viewers in the rest of the country didn't get in their broadcasts.

Last Thursday, it was a piece on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's state of the state address. The next day, there was an account of Google's announcement of its new video and software offerings at the Consumer Electronics Trade Show in Las Vegas. On Monday, it was a segment on Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's plans for rebuilding that state, laid out in his first post-Hurricane Katrina speech.

These stories all broke too late to make the traditional 6:30 p.m. Eastern time broadcast, which airs live on the East Coast and in the Midwest. But ABC got them on the air because last week, a few days after the new anchor team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff officially took the helm of "World News Tonight," the network began doing something different -- broadcasting live to the West Coast every night.

The new initiative represents a substantial investment by ABC: the hiring of at least a half dozen more people to staff two new live newscasts, one at 8:30 p.m. ET and one at 9:30 p.m. ET, in order to meet the various time slots in local markets. The network has also launched a daily live 3 p.m. ET webcast, in which Vargas and Woodruff preview the stories that will lead the broadcast. (ABC officials said the moves have incurred "significant costs," but declined to specify how much.)

This "expanded version" of the evening news, as network executives call it, marks ABC's most dramatic effort to date to keep up in an era of increasingly customized news.

"For far too long we have been ignoring a large segment of our audience and they really deserve and demand, in a very competitive environment, the most up-to-date news," said Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News Tonight." "We were sort of cheating our West Coast viewers into accepting the same news that was played three hours earlier."

The Western editions of "World News Tonight" not only will allow ABC to offer viewers the latest on developing news stories, Banner said, but also will give the network an opportunity to highlight regional stories such as immigration and wildfires that do not always make the original broadcast.

To promote the effort, Vargas and Woodruff are scheduled to anchor "World News Tonight" from various cities on the West Coast late next week, including Los Angeles.

Early ratings reports indicate that ABC got a bump in some Western cities during the first few days of its late edition. In Las Vegas, the audience increased by 23% on Thursday and Friday compared to the last quarter of 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research, and Phoenix was up 17%. The audience in Los Angeles stayed flat, however, and Seattle saw a 27% drop. (Nationally, second-place ABC continued to lag more than a million viewers behind the top-rated "NBC Nightly News.")

It remains to be seen whether ABC's labors to remake its evening broadcast will have a substantial effect on viewers in the long term. Radio and television ads promoting the new Western editions tacitly acknowledge that the network may be selling something television watchers didn't realize they needed.

"Did you even know your network evening news wasn't live?" an announcer asks in one radio spot. "Well, that's finally changing."

Judy Muller, a former ABC correspondent who now teaches journalism at USC, said that the effort will be embraced by West Coast affiliates, who have long been frustrated with the New York-produced newscasts that often include local stories that are old by the time they air. But she cautioned that tailoring a customized West Coast edition of the evening news could undercut the notion of a national newscast, in which all viewers are exposed to the same information.

"I think there's a real fear that someday we'll end up with an version of news, in which your name will come up, and it will say, 'We think you'd be interested in these stories,' " she said. "The danger in that is that there are many stories that we all need to know about."

The idea of a Western newscast is not entirely new. Back in 1979, CBS launched a West Coast version of the "CBS Evening News" that ended at some point in the 1980s. Rival networks are quick to point out that nowadays they too broadcast live to the West Coast -- when the news merits.

"They have not reinvented the wheel here," said Rome Hartman, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," who noted that last week CBS updated its West Coast feeds with developing news about the West Virginia mine accident story. "When there's news that breaks on a clock after the East Coast feed of the evening news, we're going to cover it."

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