Is NBC Working on a Live at 5 Format Killer?

Could the station that 30 years ago gave birth to the “Live at Five” news format now be plotting the

Could the station that 30 years ago gave birth to the “Live at Five” news format now be plotting the eventual demise of the early evening news genre?

Rumors are currently swirling at WNBC-4, NBC’s flagship station in New York, that executives at NBC Universal are considering the creation of a daily 5 p.m. lifestyle show that could debut on affiliate stations around the country as early as the fall of 2009—and which could spell the end, locally, of WNBC’s 5 p.m. newscast, currently anchored by Sue Simmons and David Ushery.

Sources at the station believe that the new lifestyle show will likely involve Sara Gore (a correspondent for LX.TV who appears frequently on NBC’s new local digital channel, New York Nonstop) and perhaps a yet-to-be-determined male anchor.  

In recent months, facing a severe downturn in local advertising and major drops in revenue at broadcast stations around the country, NBC Universal has been aggressively reconfiguring its approach to local media. In January 2008, NBC’s local media division acquired LX.TV, a start-up company that produced Web content about high-end culture, entertainment and shopping. Since then, LX.TV content has gradually found its way into more of NBC’s local news programming, from New York to L.A. to Chicago.

In theory, by creating a 5 p.m. general-interest lifestyle show (Entertainment! Travel! Luxury brands!) NBC could replace multiple, locally produced 5 p.m. news shows around the country with one news-like show produced in New York—and, in so doing, save its local media group a bunch of money.

Such major changes could pose yet another blow to the ranks of local TV journalists, who are already suffering from major layoffs and consolidations. Over the past year, WNBC has shed dozens of seasoned news staffers, including most recently beloved sportscaster Len Berman, as its parent company transformed the station’s newsroom into a so-called “content center.”

In recent years, various WNBC managers have expressed doubt about the long-term viability of the 5 p.m. news, given TV audience’s changing viewing habits. Ratings for WNBC’s 5 p.m. news have consistently been dismal. In the summer of 2007, WNBC first experimented with getting rid of its 5 p.m. newscast altogether, replacing it with the entertainment show Extra. The experiment was short-lived, however. And the station eventually returned to news at 5 p.m.

Back in March, WNBC’s news vice president Vickie Burns told Richard Huff of theNew York Daily News that changes were in store for the 5 p.m. hour. “In the same way you have to try new things, we’re going to try to make that show a good show and a different show, and take good advantage of that opportunity,” said Ms. Burns at the time. More recently, FTVLine reported that, according to its sources, “NBC suits want to turn the struggling 5 over to the network and use LX.TV at 5pm” and that “there is a firm belief by NBC Suits are looking to kill the 5 news.”

When contacted on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for WNBC declined to comment.

Speaking at a media conference in New York in December 2008, NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker told an audience of media investors and entrepreneurs that if he didn’t hustle to change the underlying model, NBC’s local television stations would soon be like some newspapers or car companies—that is, in danger of going out of business. 

“Local media has obviously been hurt probably more than any other sector,” said Mr. Zucker at the time. “Can we continue to operate our television stations in the same way we have? We don’t think we can.”

Is NBC Working on a Live at 5 Format Killer?