WGN’s daily morning news show has had a decade-long ratings reign among 25-54-year-olds in Chicago. Its successful formula is a humor-laden, laid-back news take drawing on the long relationship between its veteran anchors.
Editor’s Note: This marks the debut of TVNewsCheck’s Market Share Monday Memo, a new weekly column written by veteran TV marketing writer Paul Greeley that will highlight industry success stories in an expanded format.
WGN Morning News, on Nexstar’s independent station in Chicago, is unlike most local TV stations’ morning news.
It’s six hours long. The main anchor team has been together more than 25 years. They make fun of themselves, each other, the news, technical snafus, station management and whatever pops up.
And it’s the highest-rated TV morning news in Chicago.
“Our recipe is hard news and hopefully, clever, unpredictable shtick,” says Larry Potash, who’s been anchoring the show since 1995.
Clever, unpredictable shtick? How do you promote that along with hard news?
“Part of the magic of WGN Morning News is you never know what will happen next,” says Jeff Wilson, WGN’s creative services director.
“When marketing WGN Morning News, it’s all about the team and their authenticity. In everything they do, they are ‘real’ and that’s part of why we launched the ‘REAL’ campaign a few years back. People come to WGN for solid news, but they also come to us for the fun,” he says.
“One time there was a guy dressed up as a taco,” Potash says. “He parachuted off of a plane into a pool of salsa and we shot it from a helicopter. A lot of local TV morning newscasts aren’t going to show that.”
Potash, anchor Robin Baumgarten and weather anchor Paul Konrad have been on the show for some 27 years. For a local TV morning newscast, that’s practically unheard of.
The three anchor the morning news on WGN from 6 until 10, which in the November sweeps, continued a reign of 10 years as being the top-rated news program among adults 25-54, according to the station.
“We try and do the news first,” Baumgarten says, “and then let people who are funny and are able to come up with funny ideas be a supplement to getting the news done.”
Pre-produced segments like sketches and parodies populate the newscasts and have for years, contributing to the success of WGN Morning News.
“It’s kind of like the Today show meets the Letterman Show,” Potash says.
Throw in Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and Chicago’s Second City TV and you get the idea.
“It’s unpredictable, and it’s how a lot of people want to wake up,” Potash says. “They don’t want to wake up with the police log from overnight.”
From 6 a.m. until 7, WGN Morning News competes directly against the other local TV newscasts in Chicago, a point they drove home in this infamous parody promo. After 7, three of the network affiliates go to their national morning news programs, Good Morning America, Today and CBS This Morning. Only the Fox affiliate continues with local news from 7 until 10.
Comedy, fun and laughs aren’t usually the words you hear from anchors when talking about local TV news. But it’s baked into the WGN Morning News game plan.
“We get together and say, the show needs a bit of fun here or there,” Potash says.
Like this Santa-in-a-bubble bit from Pat Tomasulo, WGN Morning News reporter and sports anchor, who is part of a cast of supporting players featured on the show.
The WGN Moring News didn’t start out to be a non-traditional newscast.
“When you are the last morning show on the air in the market, you have got to do something different,” Potash says.
“It really started as a much more straightforward newscast and then ad libbing started and we realized what people’s strengths were,” said Baumgarten.
“It took a long time, but it caught an audience,” Potash says.
Nothing is off limits. Technical snafus become fodder for ridicule, like when there’s no audio.
“We have gotten so used to each other that you just kind of roll with it,” Baumgarten says. “We unplug things, we mess things up and people can relate to that.”
Many anchors would have been sweating, shuffling their papers and clearing their throats during such an audio failure, Potash says. “We said, no, don’t skip to a 20-minute commercial break to fix it,” he says. “Let us make fun of WGN having crappy audio equipment because this is what happens in people’s regular lives.”
No wonder Wilson says the station markets the morning news differently than most newscasts.
“We show them being real, because they are real in terms of their reactions, whether doing hard news or having fun,” he says. “It’s about their unique and creative ability to deliver the news and have fun on the set when the opportunity presents itself.”
Paul Konrad says that before he was hired at WGN in 1996, he used to watch the morning show from another market and wanted to be part of “those unique moments that were not predictable and that were honest.
“They were breaking the rules of how news is supposed to be done,” he says.
Once hired, Konrad says, “We would do some of the stupidest things on TV and management wouldn’t yell at us. We were given the freedom to fail and some people kind of liked it.”
What does the station’s management think of this unconventional approach?
Potash says that as ratings took off, the management basically stood back.
“Just be careful, they said,” he notes. “But that is about as much of a conversation as typically happens.”
Even when they do come under fire from management, that’s open for discussion, and ridicule, in the newscast, like the time management changed the theme song.
Baumgarten says none of the veteran staff expected to still be working in the same place for 25 years or more, “but when you have something that is so great, checks all the boxes for everything you would ever want to do in your career, what more could you want in this business?”
And should WGN’s marketing department run out of creative angles for promoting the WGN Morning News, no worries, they can do it themselves.
Quieter Creative From The Weather Channel
The Weather Channel is airing a new brand campaign that encourages viewers to “get into the out there” to appreciate Mother Nature.
There’s no mention of accuracy, no boasts about power of Doppler radar and no shots of weathercasters being blown over by howling winds. The creative is slower and quieter to take viewers out of the studio and show the network’s shared fascination with weather from the perspective of weather fans. Look for a column later this week that reveals The Weather Channel’s philosophy behind their latest campaign.
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