When anchor Gayle Guyardo on Monday rejoins the morning newscast she left seven months ago, it likely will be more than an emotional reunion with old pals and fans of Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8.
It will also be the latest salvo in the hottest war left on local TV:
The battle for morning viewers.
All five TV news shops are competing hard for the last growing audience segment in local news. Early evening broadcasts may lose viewers to lengthening workdays and changing news habits; late newscasts are competing with the Daily Show, Conan O'Brien and whatever you've taped on your digital video recorder.
Morning viewers still want a rundown of the local news headlines, updates on weather and traffic patterns, and a sense of the big news stories their co-workers will dissect around the water cooler. While there still are too many stories re-presented from the previous day's 11 p.m. news, too much crime coverage and too many saccharine-sweet feature pieces, there also is a lot more competition going on.
WFLA's move to rehire Guyardo, announced just months after she left to start an infomercial business with Shark Tank co-star Kevin Harrington, comes at curious time in the local TV game. The NBC station's morning ratings have been sliding since Guyardo's co-anchor Bill Ratliff left the station last summer.
Guyardo's departure in March, coupled with the exits of weather forecaster Jennifer Hill and traffic reporter Alicia Roberts, effectively dismantled a morning crew that had scored top ratings for many seasons.
Now that she is returning to her old stomping ground, observers wonder: Will she reclaim the old ratings levels quickly, or fall victim to Departed Anchor Syndrome — a typical result in which returning news readers struggle to recapture an audience that has moved on?
Here's my quickie analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each local morning news show, as Guyardo arrives to shake up the market once again.
Judging by the reaction on my blog when her return was announced, Guyardo can be a divisive figure in local TV, beloved by many fans but derided by others who see her as flighty and superficial. With a connection to viewers developed over 17 years and family roots in Old Tampa society, Guyardo remains a potent presence, this time partnered with Rod Carter, the steady professional hired as her successor from Birmingham.
WFLA hasn't changed the basic format of its morning show — or even its set — in too many years. It's no secret the station has felt a serious pinch from severe cost-cutting during the recent media recession, even as competitors stepped up their game.
Time for WFLA to use Guyardo's return as an incubator, spending some dough to develop new approaches that can be exported across the station. Much as some fans may like Guyardo, she likely can't restore the show's ratings on her own.
The ratings leader in mornings, Tampa's Fox affiliate has benefited by keeping a stable core of longtime anchors as WFLA was losing theirs. For years, WTVT has focused on mornings, offering a stream of local news when rivals switch to network morning programs and establishing newscasts at 4:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. (still not sure why they moved anchor Nerissa Prest to weekends for Laura Moody last year, though; both women seem equally capable to me).
WTVT's challenge: to keep its classic elements in place for longtime viewers, while staying fresh enough to ward off competition. So far, they're managing it well.
Bay News 9
Bright House Networks' locally focused cable news channel always does best in the mornings (placing second or third among key viewers), led by smoothly professional anchor Erica Riggins. I do wonder how their ratings might be helped by the default setting on Bright House cable converters, which begin on Bay News 9 when powered up, unless viewers choose another channel.
The dependable nature of Bay News 9's schedule — weather on the 9s, for example — superserves the information viewers want in mornings. But some of the news stories can feel trivial, and there are times when too much material seems taken from the channel's newspaper partner, the St. Petersburg Times.
The ABC affiliate stepped up its morning efforts years ago, hiring weather forecaster Stephanie Roberts and traffic reporter Meredyth Censullo from WTSP-Ch. 10, while showcasing its new, HD-friendly set. Anchors Dan Shaffer and Deiah Riley make a great team, though they're now often separated as Shaffer handles newsier reports standing at the set's breaking news center.
Their biggest challenge: reaching those who don't yet know how they've improved.
One competitor noted the CBS affiliate presents the best morning show few viewers get to see. Mornings have always been a challenge for WTSP — in part because CBS's The Early Show does so badly.
But hiring anchor Keith Jones from Pittsburgh was a good move, along with live discussions with Early Show anchors and a commentary segment with Scott Farrell. The changes have brought much-needed help to ace anchor Ginger Gadsden, who served admirably as sole newsreader for too many years.