How a ‘digital first’ station is breaking new ground — on television

NBC Bay Area News Tonight is simply different

“Our goal is simple,” anchor Raj Mathai told his viewers. “Go beyond the 30-second sound bites and get you better informed on the big stories of the night.”

That was on June 10, day four of Mathai’s assignment as sole anchor of his station’s new 7 p.m. newscast, NBC Bay Area News Tonight. “My hope, my vision for it is pretty simple,” Mathai says. “Just take a genuine conversation, have a few topics and try to connect with the viewers authentically. And I hate using those buzzwords, but really authentically.”

This month, several NBC-owned stations, including NY and Los Angeles, replaced a prime-access syndicated show with a newscast at 7 p.m., coming out of NBC Nightly News. But San Jose-based KNTV, which brands itself as NBC Bay Area, is using the new time period to experiment with a new take on the familiar formula. “Most newscasts are very traditional,” says news director Stephanie Adrouny. “They’re the way they’ve been for years and years and years. So this is our way of trying to engage [viewers] in a different way.”

Adrouny and her boss, general manager Stacy Owen, got the idea for the new format when Mathai, one of their main anchors, started doing Facebook Live segments during the pandemic, focusing on the day’s big stories but in a less formal way. “He’d do these Facebook Lives where he engaged with [regular people] in the Bay Area, and he would get this great response,” Adrouny says. “I’d be at home watching him. And it was a great conversation. So when Stacy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity,’ we both jumped at it: ‘Why wouldn’t we try this? He already has such great engagement with the community. Let’s try it.’”

The result is a blend of the known and the new: a polished (and impeccably dressed) veteran anchor, a big studio set, slick production values, but all in the service of just a handful of stories that the news team has deemed worthy of a deeper dive. “We’re doing the usual 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. newscast, which is content content content, a bunch of stories, and then we just kind of throw on the brakes, we jump tracks and all of a sudden we’re doing something that’s more thoughtful,” Mathai says. “Nothing against the traditional newscast, but the 7 p.m. is a more thoughtful, reflective newscast. It’s just really nice to not just give the beginning and the end of the story, but give the middle of a story.”

“Stories We’re Watching” is a regular feature on the new program

While there are recurring elements, the format is unusually flexible for a five-day-a-week news program, mixing in video, infographics, expert and newsmaker interviews, along with occasional reporter packages and (more often) Q & As with Mathai. Meteorologist Jeff Ranieri delivers a traditional forecast but also engages in detailed explainers with Mathai about climate change-related stories like the ongoing drought that’s parching the West. “We really try to focus on what we think is important to our community and that maybe needs a little bit more attention,” Adrouny says. “What we heard from [viewers and users] was that they really wanted the news explained. They wanted it to be more conversational, a little bit looser, and ask the questions that after a newscast as a viewer you go, ‘Huh, okay, so what about x? What about y?’”

Under Stacy Owen’s leadership, NBC Bay Area has aggressively expanded its original content strategy for digital platforms. We’ve reported on an investigative series created expressly for streaming (Using the ‘Netflix experience’ to deliver local investigations’); Sand Hill Road, a podcast about Silicon Valley investors; and journalist Abbey Fernández’s one-woman show in both English and Spanish on Instagram and Twitter.

“We really see ourselves as a multi-platform content provider,” Owen says. “You know, we joke that ‘TV station’ is sort of an old-fashioned way of describing who we are and what we do.” Owen says local TV news became like Mr. Rogers’s cardigan: something familiar and comfortable to put on when you get home. But while TV is still the station’s biggest platform and very important, Owen says, so are streaming and OTT and social media. “The goal of the show is to be a dual-screen experience, to be interactive,” she says. “So I do want to make sure that we’re not going back to a traditional TV show or traditional newscast, and that’s why the show is not a traditional newscast. Your cardigan is now this mobile device. So you can experience the seven o’clock show without having a TV in the house. And that’s an important piece of this as well.”

 

“Television is still a healthy medium,” Adrouny agrees. “But we need to find people in the other places where they exist, where they check, where they look. So we give them those opportunities to connect with us on all platforms, even though we’re ‘on television’ so to speak at seven o’clock. We think digital first all the time.” Adrouny is now looking for a multimedia producer who “pulls content and pushes content” across all the station’s platforms, with a special emphasis on the new 7 p.m. show.

NBC Bay Area News Tonight shares some DNA with two now-established TEGNA programs we’ve reported about: solo-anchor 6 p.m. newscasts in Denver (KUSA’s Next with Kyle Clark) and Portland, Oregon (KGW’s The Story with Dan Haggerty). And like those shows, KNTV’s new entry emphasizes viewer input and a conspicuously conversational delivery. Abbey Fernández appears on the 7 p.m. newscast with a segment called Question of the Day, sharing viewer and user responses to topical issues, although depending on the mix of the night, Mathai might handle the feedback himself instead. He’s also kept up his Facebook Lives, sometimes even during commercial breaks. Halfway through the first week of the program, Mathai left his Facebook camera on in the studio to give his followers their own unique angle as he did the show. “I realized, people just want a regular voice to talk,” he says, “not the scripted, [putting on his anchor voice] ‘I’m Raj Mathai at 6 p.m., here’s the news that you need to know.’ They just want a regular voice that’s maybe not as perfect, not as clean.”

Raj Mathai chats with his Facebook Live followers just before going on the air

As fresh as these formats feel, they are also a throwback in that they depend heavily on the credibility and personality of a single anchor. Mathai’s colleagues Jessica Aguirre and Janelle Wang will get their own crack at the 7 p.m. newscast when he goes off to Tokyo to cover the Olympics, but Owen makes no bones about Mathai’s role in the experiment. “Raj with this seven o’clock is definitely an expression of a guy who was born here, grew up here, went to high school here, knows this community and the community knows him. And so that was also part of our design for the seven o’clock: to really have the Bay Area talking to the Bay Area.”

(All images courtesy of NBC)

It’s too early for any meaningful ratings data, but Owen and Adrouny cite additional measures of success: the connection with audiences on all platforms and the ability to affect their lives in a positive way, in keeping with the station’s new tagline: “Moving You Forward.” “Our goal here is to talk to people, engage them, have their voices heard in our newscast,” Adrouny says. “I think in a year, if we look back and feel like we’ve had good engagement with our community and our audiences, then I think we’ll say this has been successful.”

“We measure everything by engagement and impact. And even when we look at ratings, we don’t look at them as numbers, we look at them as how many people we were able to impact today,” Owen says. “It’s not a traditional KPI [key performance indicator]. But we do track that: where are we actually having tangible impact in our communities? So that’s very important.”

One KPI the newsroom leaders don’t have to worry about: anchor enthusiasm. “I’ve been around the block a couple times here, and it was getting monotonous,” Mathai says. “And this is now a new way to engage. And I love it. And really, it renews my enthusiasm and my faith in local news.”

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