Sunday, June 25, 2000

Channel 5 news has had long, hard fall to No. 4




By JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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        How long will the ghost of Jerry Springer haunt WLWT's news?

        Channel 5 fell out of first place after the former Channel 5 anchor launched his national talk show here in 1991 and has never recovered.

        Channel 5's 11 p.m. news, the newscast of record here, has crawled out of third place only once (1995) in eight years.

        It's hard to believe that 10 years ago, the Jerry Springer-Norma Rashid team was the runaway favorite No. 1 newscast, with a 15 rating and 35 percent audience share, in May 1990.

        Fast-forward to May 2000: The station has lost half its audience. Channel 5 averaged an unprecedented low 7.5 rating and a 15 percent audience share.

        WKRC-TV (Channel 12) won May with a 12.8 rating, followed by WCPO-TV (Channel 9) with a 9.2 rating. Again WXIX-TV's 10 p.m. news had a bigger late-news audience than Channel 5.

        What's gone wrong?

        Just about everything. And General Manager Rabun Matthews knows that Channel 5's rock-bottom news ratings won't turn around quickly. (Maybe Channel 5 should change its slogan to “Fourth, Fast and Accurate.”)

        “It didn't get like this overnight, and it won't get fixed overnight,” he says. “We've been catching up with some neglect to get to a point where we can press forward.”

        He was stunned at “the abysmal shape the news department was in” when he arrived last August. Anchor Charlie Luken, who quit in June, had not been replaced. News Director Lyn Tolan was close to leaving for Orlando, Fla. Most of the news producers, those who write and assemble the newscasts, had quit or were about to bolt.

        “It was almost completely without leadership,” he says. “There was virtually no middle management, and no one was in the pipeline.”

Newsroom, ownership flux
        Channel 5's tailspin traces to that June day in 1991, when executives of Multimedia Inc., which owned the station, decided that the top-rated anchor and former mayor could be the next Phil Donahue. They were right.

        For the first season of the Jerry Springer show (1991-92), taped at Channel 5, the host continued as Channel 5's news anchor. Mr. Springer's over-exposure dearly cost Channel 5, which saw its five-year victory streak at 11 p.m. snapped in May 1992. Six months later, Channel 5 tumbled to third, prompting Mr. Springer to give up anchoring and concentrate on his talk show, which had moved that fall to Chicago.

        Channel 5's demise in the Post Springer Era is a textbook case on how to alienate loyal viewers.

        • After Mr. Springer quit, Channel 5 shared the main co-anchor job between Courtis Fuller and Jim Watkins, instead of settling on one person the audience could get to know.

        • A parade of news directors ran off most of Channel 5's experienced reporters: Marty Pieratt, Steve Forest, Michael Collins, Toria Tolley (Hammill), and investigative reporters Karl Idsvoog and Corky Johnson.

        Veteran Jeff Hirsh, one of local TV's most decorated reporters, was fired in 1997 with more than two years remaining on his contract. (Mr. Hirsh now reports for Channel 12.)

        • Other management decisions were postponed because of a flux in ownership. The station changed hands twice in 14 months, from Multimedia to Gannett Co. (owner of The Enquirer) to Argyle Television Inc. Shortly after, Argyle merged with Hearst to form Hearst-Argyle.

        • The bloody, unprecedented Argyle takeover in early 1997 gutted the station of many longtime managers. Argyle replaced the general manager, news director, sales manager, personnel director and chief engineer, and eliminated the special projects director, program director and investigative unit.

        • Channel 5 turned off some viewers with its sensational, tabloid news coverage. Others were not impressed with the nightly “Big Story” reported by several people. (It's a lot harder to cover many different stories daily than throw all your resources at one story.)

        • The current Channel 5 management botched the termination of Ms. Rashid in March, who sued the station in April instead of disappearing quietly. TV news managers in town weren't surprised that Channel 5 decided not to renew Ms. Rashid after 17 years, considering her newscast had been last for years. But everyone was stunned that the fight became public.

        • The station that had the Tristate weather authority (Tony Sands) in the 1960s became a revolving door for forecasters in the '90s: Pat Barry, Joe Lizura, John Gerard, Pat Barry (again), Tom Burse, Dave Fraser and Angelique Frame.

        In my opinion, Mr. Fraser was fired last year just as viewers were becoming comfortable with him. He was sent packing — again in my opinion — because he disagreed with the news director who had ordered him to declare an area snowstorm a “blizzard” against his meteorological judgment. (No other TV station or meteorologist here called the storm a blizzard.)

        • One of Channel 5's few bright spots, ratings for the 5-7 a.m. news, dropped when two popular personalities — Lisa Cooney and Ms. Frame — were moved to evening shows months before Mr. Matthews arrived.

        “I'm not sure I would have made that move,” Mr. Matthews says. “It's not to say they're not doing a good job, but it's a case of trying to fix something that's not broke.”

No familiar faces
        All of these changes haven't escaped viewers. We're creatures of habit who like to see familiar faces deliver the news. That's why we flip to Channel 12's Rob Braun and Kit Andrews, or Channel 9's Clyde Gray, at 11 p.m. Thursday, after watching our favorite NBC shows on Channel 5.

        “This station has had a lot of turnover. It takes a lot of time to overcome that,” says Mr. Matthews, a former CBS News writer and TV news director.

        Dismal May ratings, he says, may reflect the viewers' displeasure with the rotating anchors filling in for Ms. Rashid.

        So how do you turn around a battleship in the middle of a war?

        • First, you deliver a solid news report. On that front, Channel 5 has made great strides under News Director Ken Jobe, hired in October.

        • Second, you assemble an anchor team viewers want to watch. Channel 5 is still in the rebuilding process, looking for a replacement for Ms. Rashid. The new person should arrive by September, about the time Ms. Frame takes maternity leave.

        “We've lost a lot because we haven't been able to promote properly, without the anchors in place,” Mr. Matthews says. “If we can present an anchor team that appears better, then we can move (recruit) viewers. The toughest thing to do is move news viewers” (to another channel).

        • Third, you look for an area to differentiate your station, as Mr. Springer's nightly commentary helped make Channel 5 No. 1 from 1987 to 1992.

        Channel 12 has the “Weather Authority” and “Troubleshooter.” Channel 9 has the investigative I-Team, “9 On Your Side” consumer reports and the premiere sports anchor (Denny Janson). Channel 19 offers a longer newscast (one hour) at an earlier time.

        “I'm not interested in doing something just as well as the other stations are doing it. That doesn't help me,” Mr. Matthew says.

        It's a long, slow process. The Springer-Rashid team worked together for three years before they hit No. 1 in May 1987. Channel 12's Braun-Andrews tandem toiled for nearly a decade before blowing away the competition this year. Channel 5's revival apparently will take longer than that.

        “We're not doing anything at this point that overwhelms people. We're not to that point yet.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330. E-mail: Johnkiese@yahoo.com.