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Updated Feb 26, 2023, 8:09pm EST
mediaNorth America

This giant TV company is building a new cable network starring Chris Cuomo, and it doesn’t care what you think about that

Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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The News

On the morning of the 2022 midterm elections, the nascent cable network News Nation landed the only interview with Donald Trump, who broke his silence on the presidential prospects of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

What NewsNation did not note was that the interviewer, Markie Martin, had previously been discouraged from covering the former president because her sister is the deputy communications director for Trump’s political action committee.

“Like all news organizations, NewsNation tries to avoid conflicts of interest. If you watch the interview that Ms. Martin did with the former president, it is quite clear that she was tough, but fair, and the interview was picked up by dozens of other news outlets across the country,” chief communications officer Gary Weitman told Semafor.

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The network and its parent company, the local television giant Nexstar, are hoping to become a fourth major force in cable news and a major new player in the American news landscape. To get there, they’re taking the kind of reputational risks that frighten their rivals: NewsNation’s biggest star, Chris Cuomo, and its top producer, Michael Corn, both departed mainstream media under dark clouds. Its sister network, the CW, is broadcasting the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league.

The results are promising, so far, executives told Semafor. That’s partly because along with a tolerance for risk, Nexstar’s local network gives it an alternate business model and a steady stream of cash.

“We have a tremendous distribution system. Now it’s about bringing eyeballs, ears, et cetera to the distribution outlets we have with better and differentiated content,” Weitman said.

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Know More

Since a former TV News anchor named Perry Sook created Nexstar in 1996 by purchasing a run-down Scranton, PA affiliate, the company has grown to become the largest local television operator in the country. Nexstar operates 29 ABC, 35 NBC, 42 FOX, and 49 CBS channels. But with the purchase of the Tribune company in 2019, Nexstar hit the FCC mandated cap on station ownership.

That forced the company to adopt a new strategy if it wanted to continue growing: Become a creator of media, rather than just a broadcaster.

Now, three-year-old NewsNation is the most public face of the media company’s ambitions. The network has a 550 person staff, and built out its studios in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Its New York employees are currently cramped into a tiny tenth floor office in Midtown, Manhattan which it shares with local Nexstar station WPIX, while Nexstar puts the finishing touches on a gleaming new studio.

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In its first years of operation, Nexstar used its local network to help boost its cable channel. NewsNation carried 2022’s most high-profile political debates, in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Now it’s angling to leverage its moderate reputation and major local reach as an opportunity to land a 2024 presidential debate. One of the network’s reporters, Evan Lambert, made national headlines earlier this month when he was arrested while covering Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s press conference about the East Palestine train derailment, then released with an apology.

NewsNation’s president is Michael Corn, the former Good Morning America executive producer who abruptly left the network in early 2021. A judge dismissed a lawsuit by a former GMA producer who claimed he’d sexually assaulted her. Its most visible presence is Chris Cuomo, the former CNN anchor who was fired in 2021 for helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fight sexual harassment allegations. Other hosts are Leland Vittert, who “mutually and amicably parted ways” with Fox News in 2021 after incurring the wrath of Trump and his supporters, and Ashleigh Banfield, a former CNN anchor who had last appeared on HLN before her show was canceled in 2018.

Staffers say Corn, who arrived in May 2021, has professionalized the operation, which in its early days drew attention for errors like, during an early 2021 broadcast, spelling “Tucson” was spelled three different ways on screen at one time.

NewsNation still has five hours open during the day, which the network plans to fill in the coming months with several shows, including one heavily oriented around The Hill, which Nexstar purchased in 2021. (Currently, several of these spots are occupied by reruns of the cop drama Blue Bloods, which on an average week represent the network’s highest-rated show in total viewers). The move will make NewsNation a true 24-hour cable news network.

“When I started there were a lot of holes, a lot of Blue Bloods, a lot of talking about the future,” said Dan Abrams, who initially approached Compton about launching an OTT streaming news network and ended up hosting a primetime NewNation show instead. “Now we’re getting pretty close to what they envisioned.”

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Max’s view

Nexstar is making a savvy bet that could pay off big, turning the whole into more than the considerable sum of its parts. But it’s also staking the fortunes of an $7.5 billion company whose stock price has continued to climb at a time when live TV audiences are shrinking in areas well beyond its decades of expertise: digital growth and high-profile political television.

The core logic of the bet is sound, and Nexstar is going national on the cheap. There is one area where TV believes it can still compete with the streamers: Live news and sports. With the purchase of the majority of the CW, Nexstar is technically now one of the “big five” broadcasters, owning and operating stations and creating original television programming for them. Getting a professional sports contract is a worthwhile risk for the company, particularly if the “revenue share” agreement the CW has with LIV means, as analysts believe is likely, that the Saudis will bear most of the costs.

Still, the bottom is falling out of cable television and local TV. And while Nexstar points out that the company is the “only cable news network to see total viewer growth year over year,” the ratings are still tiny, even compared to some second-tier competitors. While Cuomo has improved ratings compared to the previous year, he generally loses even to the smaller cable competitors such as Newsmax’s Eric Bolling. In a recent interview on Anthony Scaramucci’s podcast, Cuomo called his own ratings “embarrassing.”

Nexstar executives are dead set on the push into digital: In recent years, the company explored the idea of buying the National Journal, but felt that the Hill was closer to the company’s news ethos. Still, one person with knowledge of the dynamics said there was some trepidation on the Nexstar corporate board over the company’s push into digital media, a field executives are less familiar with than local television. In recent weeks, the company quietly replaced its president of digital and the general manager of the Hill.

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Room for Disagreement

Nexstar executives aren’t worried about launching a cable network in 2023 at a time when audiences are cutting the cord. They pointed out that January was NewsNation’s best ratings month on record, and said Cuomo’s comments about his own ratings were intended to be self-deprecating.

“We took an old cable channel that was doing general entertainment programming, fairly low cost, and we blew it up because we knew that that genre and that delivery was going to be challenged,” Compton told Semafor in an interview.  “We have programming now that we have created and made better and improved upon and the audiences are coming. Owning that brand, NewsNation, is going to live far beyond a cable channel.”

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The View From The PGA

LIV Golf, which is backed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, has become a lightning rod for critics of the regime. The National Press Club and the families of 9/11 victims have embarked on publicity campaigns to embarrass LIV and those who work with the league. So has the PGA, which this week successfully got a judge to add PIF and its governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan to a lawsuit, and appears poised to force the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund to make public documents in court related to the country’s business dealings. Already, some CBS-owned CW affiliates declined to carry this weekend’s LIV tournament, as did some affiliates in other markets like Chicago and San Diego.

Beyond embarrassment by association, there could be broadcast consequences as well. New rules by the FCC last year require some broadcasters to disclose when foreign governments lease time on their airwaves. Opponents of LIV Golf envision a scenario in which Nexstar could be subject to these rules, and be required to air a disclosure on broadcasts telling audiences that the program is backed by the government of a foreign country. The FCC did not return a request for comment about the potential for regulation.

“We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It’s an irrational threat, one not concerned with the return on investment or true growth of the game,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told reporters last year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of News Nation executive Michael Corn.

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Notable

  • Nexstar is cleaning house at the CW as it attempts to reposition the network around unscripted content. Earlier this year, the head of development and EVP of development both departed, as did two programming VPs.
  • Staff at NewsNation who Semafor spoke to felt that the channel had largely leveled off since its more tumultuous early days, when the Times reported that several top editorial leaders resigned over disputes in coverage and staff protested the involvement of former Fox News chief and Trump White House advisor Bill Shine.
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