When WLS-TV/ABC 7 dropped the “Eyewitness News” monicker in 1996, the station was Chicago’s undisputed leader in local broadcast news.
Some 17 years later and still number one, ABC 7 will soon bring “Eyewitness News” back, reports Robert Feder, likely in time for November sweeps. John Idler, ABC 7’s president and general manager, tells Feder that revising the “Eyewitness News” name will be done in a contemporary sense — a “look forward to what ‘Eyewitness News’ means to viewers today.”
With all due respect to Idler, I read that as marketing fluff for “we’re changing the name of the newscast while everything else around it will pretty much stay the same.” Without a significant change to the newscast’s presentation or format, a name change with maybe a new studio set (highly unlikely) or graphics (more likely) is nothing more than a fresh coat of paint.
If I were a betting man, one intangible unlikely to change is the theme music. When “Eyewitness News” became “ABC 7 News” in 1996, the station decided to continue using the same music. Considering that ABC 7 has resisted changing it since, there’s hardly any reason to expect they’d do so now (which is perfectly fine by me).
Concerning everything else around the name change, I wouldn’t blame Idler for playing it safe. Even though ABC 7’s ratings dominance in local news has minimized in recent years, any attempt to dramatically alter the presentation or format would likely have an adverse affect. Previous attempts elsewhere have typically bombed.
In 2000, WBBM-TV/CBS 2’s effort to go retro with a more straight-and-narrow newscast featuring Carol Marin was dropped after eight months because of low viewership. CBS 2 went the opposite direction in 2010 with “Monsters and Money” in the morning, which was dropped after only seven months due to embarrassing low ratings.
I don’t mean to pick on CBS 2. Since their newscasts have typically been in or near last place for well over a decade, they’ve had reason to try something different. Lessening the burden on CBS 2 in recent years has been WFLD-TV/Fox 32. When walking past an empty Fox news truck at Monday’s Columbus Day parade, my wife said “Fox is also here. Where do you think they’re at?” My immediate response was “last place.”
In fairness to CBS 2, I am a big fan of the current newscast they’ve assembled, in both mornings and at night. There’s nothing edgy or innovative about it. They’ve done a great job at finding the right talent who also work well together on camera. Even if ratings growth is slow or sometimes stagnant, they are headed in the right direction as far as delivery goes.
Concerning the revival of “Eyewitness News,” Idler told Feder that a research study commissioned by the station showed that even though the name went away in 1996, it still resonates with the public. That to me sounds vague and doesn’t really mean anything to me. I get the sense they’re doing it more so for the sake of change. I hope whoever conducted that study wasn’t the same person or group that swayed WFLD into re-adapting the outdated “Fox 32” monicker.
While maintaining the status quo for local broadcast news may be the safe route, the way society collects and searches for news and information continues to change with the advancement of mobile technology and gadgets.
With the continued decline of print media and its failure to adapt a profitable online business model, local broadcast news should be in the driver’s seat. In the case of ABC 7, the name of the newscast isn’t going to matter in the long-run. What will make a long-term difference is that the quality of news stays superb, that it is easily available on mobile devices and that users can access it whenever they want.