WGN America is replacing an hour of its ratings-deprived nightly prime-time newscast “NewsNation” with a new talk show hosted by Ashleigh Banfield.
The entry with the cable news veteran will air live weeknights at 10 p.m. Eastern and 7 p.m. Pacific starting March 1.
“NewsNation,” which launched in September as a three-hour neutral alternative to the partisan prime-time programs on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, will be cut back to 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern after it failed to catch on with audiences despite the surge in TV news viewing over the last year. Nielsen data shows the program, which is produced in Chicago, averaged around 15,000 viewers in the 25 to 54 age group most important to news advertisers.
The figure is a fraction of the 100,000 viewers in the demographic that executives said they need to make “NewsNation” a business success for Nexstar Media Group, which owns WGN America.
An executive familiar with Nexstar’s plans who was not authorized to discuss them publicly said the move announced Tuesday should not be seen as a retreat from WGN America’s effort to become a player in cable news, noting that more news and talk programs will be added to the lineup early this year.
The cutback in “NewsNation” hours is being done to avoid putting Banfield in the 11 p.m. time slot outside of prime time, when fewer viewers are available to watch. There will be no cuts in “NewsNation” staffing reductions as a result of the change, the executive said.
Much of the content on “NewsNation” is provided by the local news operations of Nexstar’s TV stations around the country.
Nexstar Chairman and Chief Executive Perry Sook recently told financial analysts that the company is happy with the content on “NewsNation” but acknowledged that viewers are having trouble finding it. Sook said the company’s research found only 12% of viewers are aware of the program.
WGN America is still best known for airing repeats of popular sitcoms and dramas such as “Last Man Standing” and “Blue Bloods.” Audiences are not in the habit of tuning into the channel for news.
Sook said the channel will get a larger promotional push after more news programs are added. Despite its low ratings, he said “NewsNation” has been effective in attracting advertisers that have not previously bought commercial time on WGN America.
While WGN America made a point of hiring local news anchors with no national profile for “NewsNation,” Banfield, 53, has been a fixture on cable news, working at MSNBC, CNN, Court TV and CNN’s sister channel HLN. She became famous for her reporting from the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
Banfield does not have a reputation as a commentator or partisan and is expected to fit with WGN America’s commitment to give news programming that is not driven by opinion.
“Ashleigh is one of the most acclaimed, award-winning anchors in television news, reporting from across the country and around the globe, with a reputation for fairness and integrity,” Sean Compton, networks president for Nexstar Media Group, said in a statement.
The new program, titled “Banfield,” will feature interviews with newsmakers, politicians and celebrities and will originate from a studio in Connecticut.