Time Warner Cable News quietly celebrated its fifth anniversary on a big news days: the day that Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph Wilson died.
I was out of town and missed the extensive coverage by the channel that recently changed its name from YNN to TWCN to give it the same identity, graphics and look as all TWC news outlets in the country.
I probably wouldn’t have watched it even if I had been here.
The truth is I haven’t watched much of TWCN or YNN since its inaugural week. But as my anniversary present to the cable news channel, I figured I should at least give it a try every five years or so.
So for the past few weeks, I’ve probably watched as much of TWCN as I have over the previous five years.
I was pleasantly surprised. TWCN certainly provides a choice and not an echo to the local newscasts. You could call it the anti-local news presentation.
There were none of the bells and whistles on the local newscasts: no shouting of team coverage, no maudlin music to tell viewers they are about to see something really, really sad, no forced happy talk to illustrate that the anchors “really, really, really like each other,” no shouting that the weather is going to mean the world is ending.
TWCN just gives us the news. Straight. What a concept!
That’s the upside. The downside is that it can be, well, more than a little dull without the emphasis on personalities.
But dull can be quite soothing in the morning when I listen to anchor Scott Patterson and meteorologist Dan Russell on the set.
I also was pleasantly surprised by the young reporters, most notably Jennifer Auh. The youth of TWCN reporters isn’t unusual now that the broadcast channels hire reporters straight out of college.
TWCN has some advantages over the broadcast channels. It is on 24/7 and can carry news conferences of important local news live when Channels 2, 4 and 7 just stream them. It also can carry events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that Channel 4 used to carry live.
“We can be on whenever anything happens,” said News Director Ed Buttaccio. “We don’t have to choose to webcast something because of either syndicated or network programming.”
TWCN’s staff size is competitive with the broadcast stations here. TWCN has 45 people here and in bureaus in Jamestown, Batavia and Niagara Falls, with 20 on the air. The four people in the bureaus enable TWCN to do more in those areas than the locals.
“It really does help give us an advantage,” said Buttaccio. ”They will only get out there for something huge. We’re there day in and day out.”
TWCN also can let stories run longer and devote more time to the one area that all the local channels except Channel 2 have downsized over the years – sports coverage.
It offers sports updates at 15 minutes and 45 minutes every hour and also carries weekly half-hour shows on hockey and high school football during their seasons.
TWCN has four on-air people covering sports here, two more than Channel 4 and one more than Channel 7. Main sports anchor Kevin Carroll wouldn’t look out of place on any local station sportscast, but I’ve been most impressed with weekend anchor and weekday reporter Andy Young. He has a great voice and presence.
But TWCN also operates under some disadvantages. It is in only about 50 percent of area homes. That means half of Western New York wouldn’t know Patterson, daytime anchor Virginia Butler, evening anchor Casey Bortnick or weekend anchors Katie Morse and Alex Haight if they ran into them in a grocery story.
And don’t laugh. Grocery store sightings are one way that Buttaccio knows that audiences are growing.
“Content is king,” he said during an interview in a TWCN office. “Not to say our people aren’t getting recognized at the grocery store, because they are now. That’s another thing anecdotally – that people are getting recognized. That is kind of what happens about this time. We saw the same thing happen in Rochester back in the 1990s.”
Buttaccio was reluctant to pick the channel’s leading personality.
“I really can’t pick one because that is not the way we are designed,” said Buttaccio. “We don’t build a showcase around any one person. We more build the programming around the content.”
He eventually conceded that Butler is probably the most recognized because she is on during the day when TWCN is carried by businesses and gyms in the area.
“But I think Scott, Casey and the weekend anchors are definitely recognizable names,” he added.
Eventually, TWCN hopes the grocery store recognition will lead to improved ratings.
On Wednesday, TWCN had a combined 24-hour rating of 14, a fraction of what the local broadcast channels receive daily.
“News audiences take time to build,” said Buttaccio. “They are a habit. I think once people find us, they tend to like us.
Another disadvantage for TWCN is that the local channels get some of the highest ratings in the country for local news. It can be tough getting viewers to change their allegiance from Channel 2, Channel 4 and even Channel 7. It can be difficult to compete against history.
“I think it is less difficult than it probably was in the beginning because we were just developing a news philosophy and a brand,” said Buttacico. “Five years later, establishing politics is our top priority, knowing the importance of weather and how our viewers tune in for weather and getting involved in the community” have helped.
“When you are a five-year-old product and you start from scratch and you are competing with stations that have been here for a while … we understand that. But we’re at every place they are, not only in terms of news coverage, but also on social media.”
Like the local broadcast stations, weather coverage is huge on TWCN. It carries weather every 10 minutes on the 1’s. Russell and weekend weather anchor Brooke Zegarelli are the only meteorologists doing the weather from Buffalo. The other meteorologists do weather from the TWCN outlet in Syracuse.
“It is an efficiency,” said Buttaccio.”They are typically assigned by region. There are ours but they just don’t happen to be in our building. That’s the kind of the way our company does things. We don’t get hung up on where that function is because we can pretty much provide that function anywhere. I feel like that is something that can be accomplished in front of a green screen. Whereas you have got to go to local high schools, you’ve got to go to our pro teams.”
It’s an understandable defense. But if you really want to grow in this market, it would help if all your meteorologists were local grocery store idols.