Inside the rebranding of CBS Stations’ independents

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On Sept. 1, 2023, with the shuffling of a few letters here and there, CBS embarked on an ambitious plan to emphasize its dedication to local broadcast television.

That’s the date eight of the company’s owned-stations, many in major markets, dropped their CW affiliation and became independents — a unique opportunity that CBS is using to boost its commitment to local programming and news content.

“Viewers are interested in what’s happening in their community as opposed to always being in syndication,” said Tom Canedo, president, CBS Stations.

All told, the change affects up to 17 million households, or about 14% of the U.S.

It’s a shift that conjures memories of 1995 when the WB Television Network and UPN launched, creating a realignment of stations across the country.

While this change doesn’t affect nearly as many stations or markets as UPN and The WB would, it still is a notable opportunity for CBS to focus on local broadcast TV during a time when streaming looms large over linear television.

CBS is tackling that afront head-on with its newly independent stations, opting to introduce new newscasts in many markets as well as adding local sports and other programming. It’s also allowing them to experiment with newscast formats, such as the prime time editions on KPIX+.

While schedules still feature syndicated programming where it makes sense, CBS has added those new local newscasts paired with updated versions of the network’s true crime newsmagazine “48 Hours” to reinforce the emphasis on news-related content.

“We’re going to explore all of those within the ever-changing broadcast landscape and make the best decisions moving forward. For now, we felt like this was a great short-term and medium-term solution to do some more local news,” said Canedo.

Several markets are airing local sports — including matches featuring local high schools, Division III colleges and Historically Black colleges and universities. Under the WPCW name, Pittsburgh also carried all-female professional football games and softball’s Pony League World Series in the months leading up to the changeover.

Shifting the eight stations away from The CW branding represented a key opportunity to create cohesiveness across the portfolio.

Ultimately, CBS opted to use TT Norms, the font that has proliferated across the network and corporate CBS branding landscape.

In all but two markets, black lettering has been paired with the bright blue that’s also used on local newscast graphics packages in the markets where the network also owns the CBS affiliate.

The two exceptions, Pittsburgh’s WPKD and Philadelphia’s WPSG, use shades of gold and green, respectively, that coordinate with the localized local news graphics in those markets. This drives home CBS’s willingness to allow its local properties to shine in viewers’ eyes, with Pittsburgh’s gold and black palette borrowed from the team colors of the local NFL, MLB and NHL franchises and Philly’s green a nod to the NFL team in town.

In all but three cases, CBS also opted to emphasize the local nature of these channels by pairing the city name with channel number, which is consistent across the over-the-air signals and local pay TV providers in these markets.

The exceptions were KDKA+ and KPIX+ used in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, along with KMAX31 in Sacramento.

CBS also opted to change the call signs of WPCW in Pittsburgh to WPKD and KBCW in San Francisco to KPYX. Both of these stations’ new calls hint at their sister station’s names and represent the two “plus” brands in the group.

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“It’s being branded as KDKA+ because it offers all the local programming and entertainment that KDKA does not have the opportunity to air because we only have 24 hours,” said Chris Cotugno, president and general manager of KDKA in Pittsburgh, noting that the same philosophy holds true for the KPIX+.

“It made sense to marry the two together because we’re still one voice. We had our KDKA newscasts on the old WPCW. We’re all in the same building, we’re the same family, we’re the same people. So it just made sense to call it KDKA+,” said Cotugno.

Dropping CW affiliations created time to fill in the broadcast day, and CBS executives realized that would require investment in generating local content as well as buying existing offerings.

“It is about localism, and they understand that, and they’re allowing us the opportunity to go get it because they know it. That’s what television stations are for: To broadcast locally. It’s not just to broadcast syndicated programs because it’s easy. We have to give back to our community, and that’s what Tom (Canedo) and the rest of the leadership committee has allowed us to do,” said Cotugno.

Building up more local programming also made sense to attract local and national accounts to advertise.

“Even as advertisers get larger and more global, they want the viewer to see them as local and part of the community,” said Canedo.

Canedo also is excited about how carrying local high school football, such as KDKA+ in Pittsburgh started offering, will resonate with both employees and viewers, instilling a sense of local pride.

More non-syndicated programming and other ideas are likely on the horizon for the newly independent stations.

“We have longer-term ideas about what these stations can become,” said Canedo.

Reshaping these eight stations is core to CBS’s dedication to local broadcast TV.

“To me this is always a bigger question and a belief system in our industry. I’d like to get on my soapbox and tell people that broadcast television is not dead,” said Cotugno.

“What we’re talking about is providing the right content for viewers to turn you,” he added, noting he doesn’t refer to this as the “loss” of The CW, but rather the gain to “be able to broadcast more local programming that is exactly what the public wants.”

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