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Boom time in Jacksonville

Jun 24, 2002  •  Post A Comment

When in 1975 Tom Wills, sporting fashionably long hair and packing a canary yellow suit, saw the St. Johns River for the first time, he knew that there in , he’d found his boater’s paradise.
Later he would realize he had also found his professional paradise.
When Mr. Wills, who had reported for WTOP radio and TV in Washington, arrived at Post-Newsweek-owned CBS affiliate WJXT-TV on the northeast shore of Florida, he planned to be gone in “two years and a cloud of smoke.”
Twenty-seven years later he’s still there, and he and his energetic 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. co-anchor Deborah Gianoulis, with whom he’s worked for 24 years, are the longest-running TV anchor team in the country. “She’s like my wife, but she’s not,” said Mr. Wills. WJXT is a highly profitable station known for several things: its outsize local and network ratings (“The CBS Evening News” averaged a 14 rating/25 share in the May sweeps and “Late Show With David Letterman” averaged a 5/12), taking news seriously, having helped shape “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft, and for its meteorologist of four decades, George Winterling. He’s as well-known for growing gigantic vegetables in a postage-stamp-sized vegetable garden on the station’s front lawn as he is for 40 years of weather forecasts. And the station has shaken things up in the nation’s 53rd-largest Nielsen market-it’s a sort of TV Brigadoon on what locals call the First Coast.
Two years after Post-Newsweek and CBS drew their lines in the sand over issues related to compensation and control, WJXT is going independent July 15. The decision set off a pinball ricochet that will bounce the CBS affiliation to Clear-Channel-owned WTEV-TV and possibly redirect eyes that had been on that station, since WTEV-TV plans to shift its UPN programming to late-night on sister station WAWS-TV, a Fox affiliate.
Expecting to be able to capitalize on the inevitable confusion are the Gannett-owned duopoly of NBC-affiliated WTLV-TV (WJXT’s chief competitor) and ABC-affiliated WJXX-TV as well as Media General-owned WJWB-TV.
The copper-toned Mr. Wills confesses to initial shock at the news that WJXT was severing its 53-year connection to CBS to go independent. But seconds later he said, “I saw the possibilities.”
Possibilities such as adding a 10 p.m. newscast.
In addition, in three weeks WJXT will launch a new schedule built around four new hours of news each weekday and two new hours on weekends, nearly double what the station has been producing.
The station is reconfiguring its picture-windowed newsroom to accommodate the more intense news output-anchors will be clustered with their show producers, there will be some 20 new hires, and there will be a corner dedicated to the increased role CNN-provided material will play. The station is upgrading its Doppler weather system, and it will add two edit bays and two live trucks and rig more locations for live remote capability. Installation of a three-position morning-news set from Broadcast Design International in Carlsbad, Calif., began last week, and it was ready for lighting to begin over the weekend. Alas, news director Mo Ruddy’s dream of having a newsplex set proved structurally impossible.
The Eye of the storm
Meanwhile, in an office- and industrial-park area well east of WJXT, the Clear Channel Media Center is in double overdrive preparing for the affiliation switch that will affect both of the duopoly’s stations, but the soon-to-be CBS affiliate WTEV will be most dramatically affected. The Center houses two TV stations, 11 radio stations and the Clear Channel Outdoor billboard operation.
On July 15, WTEV will sport, in addition to the CBS lineup, 21/2 new hours of news (up from 1 hour) each weekday and two new half-hour newscasts on Saturday and Sunday (where there were none).
Duopoly News Director Jim LaBranche, 45, is installing a brand-new news set built for double duty by the Express Group in San Diego. Shoot in one direction and you frame the WTEV anchors against a skyline backdrop or the newsroom. Shoot the other way and the audience will see WAWS anchors against a design background heavy on blue.
Mr. LaBranche has hired 17 new employees, most whom are from outside Jacksonville and will not arrive until July. He upgraded to AccuWeather’s HD-ready Galileo. WAWS’s two-hour weekday morning newscast will be trimmed by a half-hour and moved to WTEV as a lead-in to “The Early Show.” WTEV’s 11 a.m.-to-11:30 a.m. weekday news moves to noon. And he’s adding equipment, including a satellite-ready live truck.
Less than a month before the switch, Mr. LaBranche had chosen his new 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. co-anchor, John O’Connors from WESH-TV in Orlando, but still had to decide on a co-anchor for the migrating morning show.
For the quiet Mr. LaBranche, the process has been compressed and intense. On April 3, when WJXT announced it was leaving the CBS fold, Clear Channel wouldn’t have what duopoly General Manager Susan Adams Loyd called “a done done deal” for WTEV to become Jacksonville’s CBS affiliate for nearly three more weeks.
By the time the Clear Channel-CBS deal was in place-the deal would include long-term affiliation extensions for seven other stations-there were only 80 days to make the switch in Jacksonville.
On June 10, when there were only 36 days left until the start of the new era, Mr. LaBranche sighed, “Those were the good old days-when we had 80 days.”
WJXT’s independence day
At WJXT, the prep time lasted longer. Post-Newsweek and CBS had been so far apart on key issues related to compensation and local control that they had agreed to extend by a year the affiliation, which expired in July 2001, so both sides could consider their positions and options.
Ms. Ruddy, 34, earned her news director’s wings last August at WJXT after a little more than a year at sister station KPRC-TV in Houston. She had worked for Mr. LaBranche at WTOG-TV in Tampa, Fla., moving to Jacksonville in 1998 to become WJXT’s assistant news director, and she urged Mr. LaBranche to check out Jacksonville after Paramount replaced WTOG’s news with sitcoms in 1998.
Everybody talks about the weather, which can change dramatically from minute to minute in Florida, and the traffic. But Jacksonville still has only a handful of traffic cams and doesn’t have even one traffic helicopter. That’s a problem for a city that sprawls over more square miles than Los Angeles. It is the hub of a 15-county market, encompassing nine counties in Florida and six in Georgia that got People Meters four years ago. Ms. Ruddy is about to hire the first in-studio traffic reporter in the market to work exclusively for a single station.
The traffic reporter will be part of the mix during the 5 a.m.-to-9 a.m. morning news block, during which Ms. Ruddy wants more people reporting live from more locations, more in-studio interviews and more regular contributors of expertise on topics ranging from medicine to home repair.
“I believe the morning show represents a tremendous opportunity,” said Ms. Ruddy.
What had been a half-hour of news at noon will expand to an hour sandwiched between syndicated programming.
What had been “The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather” will become a Tom Wills-anchored half-hour that will, with live and packaged material from CNN and live reporting from sister newspaper The Washington Post, take a broader national and worldview.
However, “We do not want to be Dan Rather with Tom Wills at 6:30,” Ms. Ruddy said.
Following the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. newscast-in which a high story count meets the investigative reporting for which the station has become known and honored-will be a 15-minute “Eyewitness News Express,” a program that lets viewers get the most important news and get to bed.
Many people wonder whether Jacksonville will awaken July 15 to more news than the market can bear. “Maybe if they’d report good news instead of so much bizarre stuff, maybe they could fill it,” offered Bobbie Sutton, a lifelong resident whose plaint was echoed by her sister, nurse Ann Reilly. They and other residents noted that on any give
n weekend, the big news in Jacksonville may be the near-derailment of a wedding by a church fire.
“I don’t think the news audience is maxed out,” said WTEV and WAWS’s Mr. LaBranche, who believes the audience is not only growing but growing younger. Jacksonville already is the youngest-skewing major Florida market, with a median age of 35.8, very near the U.S. median age of 35.6. (The next youngest market in Florida, where the statewide median is 39.1, is Miami with a median of 37 years.)
Josh McGraw, president of the Clear Channel Media Center and former general manager of WAWS, said that however slow the news might sometimes seem, in Jacksonville “news does sell well.”
Free of CBS baggage
And at Post-Newsweek’s WJXT, where one of the themes is “News is our middle name,” another mantra is, “When we control our destiny, we do really well.”
WJXT has the ability to program its own lead-ins and create its own flow and to run news where it sees fit. After Sept. 11, the station lost ratings oomph in the morning by going with both hours of “The Early Show” instead of sticking with the “blended” format that emphasized local news in the first hour. Even so, “The Early Show” on WJXT overindexed “The Early Show’s” national performance by 258 percent in February. In May, “Early” on WJXT finished second in households (6 rating/19 share) to “Today” on WTLV (8/24).
Still leading into the 5 p.m.-to-7 p.m. news block is the reliable “Oprah Winfrey Show.”
General Manager Sherry Burns, whose on-air editorials have made her face familiar to viewers, said the repositioned 10 p.m. news is “critical to our success” after July 15.
“We didn’t have a network lead-in for the 11 o’clock with CBS,” she said, noting a slot that has a performance problem even the network has conceded. But the station is banking on help from back-to-back off-network “Frasier” episodes in addition to the appetite WAWS has created for news at that hour.
George Corbitt, the WJXT research director known as a guru to even competitors, predicts his station will slip to second place behind WTLV for total day but retain household leadership in news and pick up younger viewers with the 10 o’clock news.
Fighting for third
At the Clear Channel Media Center, WAWS is coming off a May sweeps book in which its 10 o’clock newscast edged out whatever ABC programming it was up against on WJXX to slip into third place. It was, however, a distant third, because WJXT and WTLV compete with double-digit shares, and the other four commercial stations duke it out for single-digit or demographic bragging rights.
WJXT “should be worried about us,” said Ms. Adams Loyd. “We are the incumbent.”
The Center’s Mr. McGraw had jump-started newscasts at Fox stations in Boston and Portland, Maine, before he arrived in 1991 in Jacksonville, which everyone agrees is an early-to-bed city. “Late Night” averaged a 5 rating in May, “Tonight” averaged a 6, and everything else, including “Nightline, averaged a 2 rating in May.
He thinks the “Express” news on WJXT-whose late news finished first in May with an average 11 rating to WTLV’s 10 rating-is “susceptible.”