Starting this Monday, the NBC television station in Washington, Channel 4, will start a weeknight newscast at 7:30 -- but on a rival station, Channel 50.
In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Channel 16 has already expanded its news operation to provide a half-hour newscast each weeknight at 10 -- on Channel 38.
In effect, each station is competing with itself, and the moves indicate how drastically television is changing at the local level as stations try to respond to shrinking profit margins and altered viewing habits. In this case, the two stations are trying to squeeze extra broadcast time and more advertising revenue from their existing news operations.
The moves are being labeled experiments, but executives at both stations say they think the experiments will work and will eventually be copied by other stations.
"Yes, they're competing with themselves," said David Smith, the manager of television consultation for Frank N. Magid Associates, a company that analyzes the news operations of local television stations. "But if you don't compete with yourself, somebody else will."
Other stations are competing with themselves less directly, making deals with local cable companies to provide brief news reports. Smith said at least one station in almost every market had tried providing cable news reports.
And Hearst Broadcasting Co. plans to start a local all-news cable channel in New England, using the newscast from its Boston station, WCVB, as part of the programming.
Allan Horlick, the vice president and general manager of WRC, Channel 4 in Washington, said the decision to add a newscast on an independent, competing station was based on one thing -- revenue.
"It is incumbent on us to take our existing resources and find new revenue streams for them," he said.
Local television has lost its image as "a license to print money," Smith said. "It's still a good business, but it doesn't have the growth ratio it used to. A few years ago, a good television station could count on profit margins of 10 to 20 percent. That's now down to 3 to 7 percent."
As a result, many stations are hungry to find extra revenue.