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Stations in Turnaround

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Everyone looks to a market’s leading station for ideas on succeeding in news. But the one to watch may be the last-place station that is slowly but steadily working its way up.
Several perennially poor-performing television stations around the country are in the process of turning their operations around. Starting with a basic plan that will take years to achieve, these stations are investing in new equipment and extra personnel. Some are further along, with the bulk of the work completed, while others have just begun the laborious process of getting back on track.
The process requires lots of money-and lots of patience. But as these stations are proving, it is possible to salvage even the worst-case situations.
Here are four stations that are in varying degrees of repair.
WBBM: From Stem to Stern
WBBM-TV, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Chicago, used to brand itself as the “Problem Solver.” But when Joe Ahern joined the station as general manager last August, he put the kibosh on that slogan and others.
“Why call yourselves a problem solver when the station has a bunch of problems itself?” he said.
Mr. Ahern assumed the Herculean task of turning around WBBM, one of the most troubled stations in the country. Once a top-rated news powerhouse, the station has been mired in last place-not third, but usually fifth behind the ABC, NBC, Fox and WB stations in the nation’s third-largest market-since the mid-1980s.
Mr. Ahern’s first order of business was to fix the signal. The antenna, located on the John Hancock Building in Chicago, began suffering from transmission problems when the Sears Tower was erected, disrupting some of the signal from the shorter Hancock Building. The signal was so distorted in many areas that people stopped watching CBS, he said.
WBBM replaced the troubled old antenna in December with a new circular polarized antenna that’s 146 feet higher. Mr. Ahern said the new antenna cost between $1 million and $10 million but would not be more specific.
The next step was a massive personnel overhaul. Shortly after joining WBBM, Mr. Ahern began raiding his competitors in the market. He has pilfered behind-the-scenes and on-air talent from most of the stations in town, including Station Manager Fran Preston from ABC O&O WLS-TV, News Director Carol Fowler from Tribune Broadcasting-owned WB affiliate WGN-TV and weather anchor Ed Curran from NBC O&O WMAQ-TV.
In all, about 20 players from the two top-ranked stations in the market-WMAQ and WLS-have jumped ship to join WBBM, Mr. Ahern said.
WBBM’s changes leave no area of the station untouched. News has been added, a local programming department was created and sets have been refurbished. WBBM also plans to build a new facility to open in 2006, he said.
The mandate came from the Viacom Television Stations Group, which is backing this multimillion-dollar effort to reverse the station’s ratings fortune. The payoff certainly hasn’t come yet-Mr. Ahern knows WBBM has a long way to go-but the station has seen small ratings increases during the past several months.
The late local news averaged a 5.8 rating (percentage of TV households) and 9 share (percentage of sets in use) in February, up from November 2002 and February 2002, which both saw a 5.3/8. The morning news ratings are still small, but the 5 a.m. hour is up 29 percent over last year and the 6 a.m. hour is up 38 percent.
A caveat: Despite CBS’s strengthened prime-time lineup, WBBM’s lead-in retention is about the same as it was a year ago at 78 percent.
KPIX: Hard News, More Trucks
KPIX-TV in San Francisco might be the poster child for the Viacom Television Stations Group’s revitalization project. Like many CBS O&Os, KPIX was mired in last place during much of the 1990s. During that period, the station witnessed a talent exodus and underwent a number of management changes.
But with a hearty inflow of capital and news insight during the past few years, the station has at last become a player in the country’s fifth-largest market. In February KPIX won the 11 p.m. news crown for the first time in 12 years. The station was up 63 percent at 11 p.m. with a 5.4/13 compared with a third-place 3.3/7 in 2002. The 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. newscasts have also seen growth.
To turn itself around, the station hired News Director Dan Rosenheim nearly three years ago. He immediately began expanding the station’s news presence. Among other things, KPIX added news-on-the-hour updates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“The goal was to say to the marketplace, `We are in the news business 24 hours a day,’ and to say to the news department, `We are in the news business 24 hours a day,”’ Mr. Rosenheim said.
The station added a 4:30 p.m. newscast in 2001 and a 5:30 p.m. newscast on weekends in 2002. This past January, it expanded with 2.5 hours of news on weekend mornings. The station has backed up its news time expansion by adding about a dozen journalists, increasing its news ranks by about 10 percent over the past three years.
The news philosophy has become more hard-news-oriented, with more enterprise and in-depth stories, Mr. Rosenheim said.
The station has deepened its relationship with the local CBS radio station and just inked a deal to share resources with the San Francisco Chronicle starting May 18, said Ron Longinotti, VP and general manager of KPIX.
The station’s news investment has been matched by an equally strong commitment to improve equipment. KPIX has replaced 12 live trucks in its fleet of 22 with new, upgraded trucks costing $350,000 apiece. Last year, the station spent $800,000 replacing 12 newsroom and promotion department editing suites with Avid nonlinear editing technology. Overall, the capital expenditures for the past three years represent a tripling of the station’s capital budget from the previous three years.
The next step in the process is to migrate the station’s Evening Magazine entertainment show from tape to nonlinear editing, Mr. Longinotti said.
“I liken ratings growth to weight loss,” he said. “If you have a gradual approach, it’s more likely to be sustainable.”
WAPT: Slow and Steady
WAPT-TV, the Hearst-Argyle Television-owned ABC affiliate in Jackson, Miss., got off to a slow start in a three-station race. The UHF station signed on in 1970, about 20 years after its two strong VHF competitors hit the airwaves in the country’s 89th-largest market.
For its first 22 years, the station didn’t try very hard to close the gap, offering only a 5 p.m. and a 10 p.m. newscast Monday through Friday. Then in 1992, the station began to rebuild on a shoestring budget.
The news department had 19 staffers at that time and WAPT decided to focus on the three-county region that contained half of Jackson’s population, since its signal was stronger there, said General Manager Stuart Kellogg. That year, WAPT added 6 a.m., 6 p.m. and late weekend newscasts.
Mr. Kellogg also expanded the staff, hiring part-time employees, since the station couldn’t afford to add full-time people. To enhance its on-air appearance, WAPT beefed up its graphics look, dressing up stories with maps and visuals. In addition, it localized stories from news service feeds by voicing them with local talent.
That kept WAPT going. Still, its growth was slow until Hearst-Argyle purchased the station in 1997 and committed the financial resources needed to really make a difference. Since then the station has spent $1.5 million on upgrading the news equipment alone.
The station has also added staff and is now up to 30 journalists. In addition, it upgraded its pay scale so that employees were finally on par with the market, and it expanded the morning newscast to 90 minutes.
Turnover was running at 30 percent to 40 percent a year and is now a fraction of that, Mr. Kellogg said. To encourage people to stay, WAPT began investing in its staffers, adding employee training and internal education opportunities while regularly sending people to Poynter Institute seminars and National Press Photographers Association training events.
In addition, WAPT recently added two new w
eather people and purchased a new radar system for tornado coverage.
These methodical and deliberate investments are beginning to yield dividends. A January report by market research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott indicated that WAPT had jumped to a strong No. 2 in “preference,” behind Liberty-owned NBC station WLBT-TV, Mr. Kellogg said. And WAPT is the leader in the market in weather, based on research and focus groups, he said.
Ratings are rising slowly. Overall, WAPT is second in the metro area and a competitive third in the market, he said. The 6 p.m. news, for instance, generated an 11/18, behind WLBT’s 19/31 and neck and neck with Media General-owned CBS affiliate WJTV’s 10/17.
“We’ve finally made a turn where the newsroom culture believes it can win the news battles every day and provide a better product every day,” said News Director Bruce Barkley. “I think we’re kind of at the verge of better things. This is a market where you have to prove yourself. It doesn’t come around in a couple of books.”
WHDH: Style and Substance
Ten years ago, WHDH-TV was a distant third in the tough Boston news market. Then Sunbeam Television came to town and bought the station, which was a CBS affiliate at the time, and began a decade-long makeover that has turned many of the station’s newscasts squarely around.
WHDH was in bad shape. Equipment was broken, salaries were frozen and layoffs were regular. The new ownership added reporters, news hours and production value. WHDH increased the story count on its newscasts and added some pizzazz with music, graphics and animation.
That was good for ratings but didn’t always sit well with journalism critics, who said the station was all style and no substance. “It’s really a marriage between style and substance,” News Director Ed Kosowski said. “While some of our early critics were focusing on graphics and promotion, what they were missing out on was [that] the coverage was just as strong.”
The ratings began to rise, but viewers’ perceptions took longer to change. The numbers got an additional boost in 1995 when WHDH became an NBC affiliate, but the station still had a ways to go. WHDH continued to expand its news presence and added a 4 p.m. newscast in 2000 and a 4 p.m. show in 2001.
Most of the stations in the Boston market no longer subscribe to Nielsen ratings, so WHDH was not able to provide ratings data. However, the word from the buying community is that the station is considered a news leader and tops in late local news in the sixth-largest market, said Mike Carson, station VP and general manager.
The station still has its work cut out for it in the early-evening time period, where Hearst-Argyle’s ABC affiliate WCVB-TV continues to reign at 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.