Does every local TV newsroom need a ‘plus’?

WBRZ doubles down on news — and places a big bet on sports

Apple TV+. Paramount+. CNN+. If there’s a sign of the times in TV these days, it’s the “+” sign.

“Plus” generally denotes a new program service for on-demand streaming platforms. And local TV newsrooms are joining the trend. After we published a story about WMC Plus, a local news and sports channel created by Gray’s Memphis station, I got an email from Trey Schmaltz, the news director at WBRZ in Baton Rouge, telling me about WBRZ Plus, an unusual broadcast/cable/streaming channel that recognized early on what’s now become a priority for every local TV newsroom: reaching beyond conventional programs and platforms for new audiences and revenue.

Now, nearly four years since its launch, WBRZ Plus is breaking new ground again, introducing a 9 p.m. newscast this month — a couple of weeks earlier than scheduled so as to cover Hurricane Ida — and this past June becoming the first local broadcaster to forge a partnership with a sports betting network.

WBRZ Plus signed on in January 2018 to meet a challenge Schmaltz describes like this: “How can we create something to monetize that provides information and builds off of what we’re already doing, which is what we know how to do: local news.” In effect, the answer was for the newsroom to start competing against itself. “We had reached the maximum amount of local news potential on the legacy station, so we turned to our startup to add local news,” Schmaltz says.

The original concept was simple: simulcast any newscast that’s live on the main channel, but add more hours of local news when WBRZ, an ABC affiliate, is on network or syndicated programming. Plus is also a handy outlet for breaking news that isn’t worth interrupting the legacy channel for, like live coverage of coaches’ news conferences in a football-crazy market.

That means two additional hours of local news in the morning, an extra half-hour at 6:30 p.m., and an extra half-hour of late news — all produced exclusively for Plus. There is also heavy reliance on repeated newscasts to fill the gaps between fresh programs: the full 6 to 7 p.m. hour repeats on Plus from 7 to 8 p.m., for example, for people coming home later.

Up to now, the priority has not been differentiation, but accessibility — doubling down on the news that viewers know and like. “If you’re seeking out Plus, you’re seeking WBRZ news content at a time that’s more convenient for you. So we’re going to deliver the same strategy across both stations,” Schmaltz says.

Michael Shingleton and Sylvia Weatherspoon (all images courtesy of WBRZ)

The new 9 p.m. newscast extends that approach. It’s an attempt to attract viewers who want their late news earlier, replacing a half hour that originally followed the legacy channel’s 10 p.m. newscast. While there is a small team dedicated to the new program, WBRZ’s 6 and 10 p.m. anchors, Sylvia Weatherspoon and Michael Shingleton, also deliver the 9 p.m. along with the rest of the A-team. “This is a full blown primetime newscast with the major players in our station,” Schmaltz says. “The 10 o’clock news still has its own set of reporters, turning stories that you won’t get at 9, that you don’t get at 6. In today’s multi-platform world, we really can’t be too concerned about cannibalizing anything. We need to look more at a way of being almost everywhere, at almost any time.”

Beyond adding and repeating newscasts, Schmaltz is also looking for more original ways to drive new viewers to Plus. He plans to experiment with a Friday night football show, a Friday evening political show, and original long-form programs, like an upcoming youth crime special.

But the station’s big wager is on three hours of sports betting programming every weekday, with another chunk on Saturdays. It’s a unique partnership with a sports betting streaming channel, VSiN, that originates from the Las Vegas sports books. WBRZ Plus joins VSiN programming for an hour at a time at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m. weekdays and from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. This football season will be the first to feature legal sports betting in Louisiana, and Baton Rouge, home of SEC powerhouse LSU, is fertile ground.

“It was very clear to us at an early stage in this sports betting realm that this was going to be a big deal,” says Schmaltz, who describes VSiN as a CNBC for sports bettors. “How do we create something that is not just extra, but meaningful?”

WBRZ Plus relies on a solid three-legged distribution platform: it’s a digital sub-channel for over-the-air viewing, it appears on basic tiers on both cable systems that serve Baton Rouge, and it’s an OTT streaming channel. (If your only source of TV is a satellite dish, you’re out of luck.) Schmaltz says he pays as much attention to promotion as he does to editorial direction. “We cross-promote 24 hours a day. Every newscast will cross-promote to the next newscast on the other channel. And we’re looking for ways that we can cross-promote even after the news is over” — such as referring back to a story that broke on the sister channel.

The station also gets strong support from its local owners: the Manship family, which has a 112-year history in the news business and deep roots in the community. Still, Schmaltz prides himself on fielding a lean team, although he doesn’t want to divulge just how lean it is. Instead he sent me an email that said in part, “Innovation doesn’t have to mean expensive. It means thinking smarter, harder and more efficiently about what you want and how to get it done.”

That advice from Market #94 echoes what GM Jonathan Mitchell of WMC in #51 Memphis told us about his new Plus channel: “You don’t have to be in a major market. You don’t have to be a network O-and-O. You can have a standard of excellence, and everyone can strive to reach that standard every single day.”

Words that might inspire other local newsroom leaders to ask themselves: What’s our Plus?

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