Despite ample headwinds from COVID-19, Nexstar Media Group is not curtailing its ambitions to mount a new prime-time challenger to cable news as the U.S. nears its consequential election season.
The company said Wednesday that News Nation, its three-hour nightly news show, is going forward without any changes. It will premiere on September 1, CEO Perry Sook said during a conference call with analysts.
The show has hired a staff of 30, including on-air talent. It will originate from WGN in Chicago and air on WGN America, the former home for prestige (if money-losing) dramas operated by Tribune Media. Nexstar acquired Tribune last fall in a $4.1 billion deal.
“There’s no real hard-news entity in prime time,” Sook said, giving WGN America a chance to break through. Given the network’s reach to 75 million U.S. households, the venture has gotten early traction with more than 100 national ad buyers, he added.
Contrary to the opinion shows that dominate cable news in prime-time, News Nation will be “100% absent of bias,” Sook said. “We’re so serious about that we’re hiring a panel of rhetoricians to review our broadcasts for unconscious bias that may creep into the words we use and the reporting that we do.”
Nexstar fared reasonably well in the first quarter given the pullback of many advertisers and the logistical hurdles of the pandemic. It plans about $40 million in cost reductions across its operations in the coming months, but reported strong earnings overall and offered investors an upbeat outlook for the second half of 2020.
Beyond the marquee matchup of presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, dozens of other races will be tracked on News Nation this fall, along with general news stories. One innate advantage Nexstar brings is its leading portfolio of nearly 200 TV stations, whose teams will play a role in reporting and live shots across the country for the WGN America show.
The “backbone” of the station group’s 5,400 news staffers, as Sook called it, will spread out in states like Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania to deliver field reports. As to sensibility, he added, it’s no accident that News Nation will be based in Chicago, enabling it to be “from the heartland and be directed at the heartland.”
In terms of political advertising, which will be a key launch category for News Nation, Sook called the COVID-19-related shutdowns a “net positive” for Nexstar. “If you’re not holding rallies and spending money on filling stadiums and auditoriums, you’re going to spend more money on television,” the CEO said. “This is going to be the primary means of communication for the campaign, at least until the late stages when people feel more comfortable congregating.”