Sunday, April 21, 2002

They make news behind the scenes

Their names and faces are unfamiliar, but these four men have a lot to say about what gets reported

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The names probably don't ring a bell: Elbert Tucker, Pat Casey, Scott Hollowell, Bob Morford. Don't feel bad. Three of them have been in town for only a short while, and they've been sort of busy. These relatively anonymous men are Cincinnati's TV news directors, the managers who play the critical behind-the-scenes role in which TV newscast you choose to watch.

        Each determines the tone, template and talent for his newscasts.

        Each makes sure his newscasts have the same things as his competitors (top stories, weather) and something distinctive (a helicopter, Troubleshooter, I-Team or more time).

        Each makes crucial personnel decisions, deciding who should anchor newscasts and where to deploy resources (three sports anchors or two?).

        And each is desperately trying to lure you to his newscast as May sweeps start Thursday.

        “The news director is a real key position,” says Marjorie Fox, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of broadcast journalism.

        “The news director sets the tone of a newscast, and hires the talent. The news director also decides how much emphasis to put on crime news, or public affairs reporting, or "news you can use,' ” says Ms. Fox, a former Chicago TV news producer.

        Since February 2000, each of Cincinnati's four TV news operations has hired a new manager.

        WXIX-TV's Pat Casey, 45, a former managing editor at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, has the longest tenure here — two years and three months. WKRC-TV's Elbert Tucker, 39, and WCPO-TV's Bob Morford, 45, were named news chiefs a year ago; WLWT-TV's Scott Hollowell, 42, came here in January.

        Of the four, Channel 12's Mr. Tucker has the least experience as a news director (one year). But he holds the strongest hand — for now — because Channel 12 has the highest ratings for all weekday newscasts.

        Channel 12 has the killer combination for news ratings success: The strongest network (CBS) to provide the biggest news audience (or “lead-in”), and the anchor team with the longest tenure (Rob Braun-Kit Andrews-meteorologist Tim Hedrick).

        Without control over the network “lead in,” or having the most familiar anchor team, rival news directors are forced to wage war on other fronts.

        Here's how they affect the newscasts you see:

Channel 5

        After pulling into second place for the first time in almost a decade, Channel 5 has turned to Scott Hollowell to make a run at top-rated Channel 12.

Station: WLWT-TV (Channel 5)
Age: 42
Vienna, W.Va., near Parkersburg
Cincinnati resident since:
Jan. 28, 2002
News director experience: Five years in Birmingham, Ala., and the Orange County NewsChannel in Santa Ana, Calif.
Other TV experience: Has worked for stations in Miami, Dallas, West Palm Beach, Fla., plus CNN Headline News and ESPN.
Most unusual TV job: Executive producer of The Pat Summerall Show with Troy Aikman in Dallas.
        His weapon of choice: Aggressively pursuing breaking news.

        He has interrupted programming for live coverage of Bob Huggins' announcement that he would stay at UC; the murder verdict for Texas mother Andrea Yates; the Fraternal Order of Police vote on the racial profiling agreement; and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's signing the historic racial profiling settlement. Only Channel 5 carried all those stories live.

        “We're trying to educate viewers that this station is going to have the most in-depth coverage, and the longest coverage of these live events,” says Mr. Hollowell, who has worked five years as a news director in Birmingham, Ala., and Santa Ana, Calif.

        He's also trying to educate viewers that top-rated Channel 12 didn't go live for President Bush's January speech in Hamilton, or Mr. Ashcroft's visit nine days ago.

        “I thought it was important,” says Mr. Hollowell about Mr. Ashcroft's Cincinnati appearance.

        Mr. Hollowell and his boss, general manager A. Rabun Matthews, stress that Channel 5's aggressive style should not be confused with the station's sensational tabloid-style newscasts in 1997-99 under news director Lyn Tolan. (Sometimes decisions by previous news directors can haunt stations for years.)

        Willing to eat his two-year-plus contract, Ms. Tolan fired award-winning reporter Jeff Hirsh (prompting his jump to Channel 12). She also ordered a freak snowstorm called a “blizzard” over the protest of her meteorologists.

        Sensationalism “has not been an issue in the last three years, since I've been here, and won't be for as long as I'm here,” says Mr. Matthews, a former CBS News writer for Walter Cronkite and a former TV news director.

        As a point of difference, Channel 5 heavily promotes its “Sky 5” helicopter, because it's the only station in town that has one. Channels 9 and 19 have had no helicopter leases since 2000, which has saved them several hundred thousand dollars.

        “You can't beat a helicopter for breaking news,” says Mr. Hollowell, who used the aircraft to sight the missing cow in Mount Storm Park and survey flooding last month.

        All of this, he hopes, will continue to build on strong February news ratings during the Winter Olympics, when Channel 5 pulled away from third-place Channel 9. The Olympics gave viewers a chance to sample the Dave Wagner-Anne Marie Tiernon anchor team assembled in September 2000.

        Part of Channel 5's past ratings woes can be attributed to seven years of playing musical chairs with the anchor/meteorologist spots by previous news directors. After Jerry Springer left in 1993, Jim Watkins, Courtis Fuller, Charlie Luken and Norma Rashid have been anchors; Tom Burse, Dave Fraser and Angelique Frame have served as primary meteorologists.

        “Each newscast is your own best promotion,” says Mr. Hollowell, who grew up in West Virginia listening to the Reds on 700 WLW-AM. “I'm happy we're breaking some stories, but we need to keep it up. We need to do it for like two years, before it registers on people's minds.”

Channel 9

        Soon after news director Bob Morford arrived last April, he made some unpopular decisions in the Channel 9 newsroom.

Station: WCPO-TV (Channel 9)
Age: 45
Married seven years, no children
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Cincinnati resident since: Lived here 1994-97 as Channel 5 news director; hired by Channel 9 a year ago.
News director experience: 21 years in Pittsburgh; Phoenix; Cincinnati; West Palm Beach; Huntsville, Ala.; and Knoxville, Tenn.
Other TV experience: Reporter and photographer in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Most unusual TV job: Was a news consultant for an Abilene, Texas, station in 1998 and “saw the news director's job from the opposite side of the fence.”
        He canceled Joe Webb's HomeTown feature series, pulled Hagit Limor off the Saturday morning anchor desk, and moved Randy Little from noon anchor to night reporting (prompting him to quit in November).

        Mr. Morford's restructuring added three minutes to newscasts (from HomeTown), and increased his reporting ranks from four to 11.

        “Call me crazy, but people tune into a local newscast for two reasons: "Local' and "News,' ” Mr. Morford said in June, after Channel 9's late news had dropped to third in May sweeps behind Channels 12 and 19.

        Mr. Morford, the most experienced of Cincinnati's news directors (21 years, including a 1994-97 stint at Channel 5), plans to revive Channel 9's ratings by concentrating on “important news,” not all news.

        “Getting everything is not a goal. It's just a fear,” says Mr. Morford, who has been managing TV newsrooms since age 24.

        “We're a serious news operation. I believe doing important news is going to bring people to the newscasts,” he says.

        He notes that only Channel 9 went with Mayor Charlie Luken to Baltimore in March, where the mayor addressed an American Bar Association conference on race. Only Channel 9 produced a one-hour documentary about Vine Street blight, which won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. Only Channel 9 marked the one-year anniversary of the riots with an hour prime-time special.

        “Why did we do the prime-time (riot anniversary) special? Because it needed to be done,” he says. “We know it's important, and if we didn't do it, nobody else will.”

        Mr. Morford says Tristate viewers “come to (Channel 9) for the effort that's seldom made. They expect it from this station — and we try to deliver on that.”

        The best example of an “effort seldom made” is Channel 9's investigative I-Team, which has won two Peabodys, an Alfred I. duPont and dozens of other national awards. Mr. Morford is adding a fifth person to the unit, which already is twice the size of Channel 5's “Target 5” team.

        Other points of difference: Channel 9 has the only nightly news commentary, Dennis Janson's “My Two Cents Worth” at 11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, though it has been suspended until June to allow for more news in sweeps. Channel 9 is the only local station with three full-time sports reporters (John Popovich, Kathrine Nero, Mr. Janson).

        Under Mr. Morford, the station has replaced the “Your Hometown Station'' branding with the “9 On Your Side” campaign. He has former late-news co-anchor Carol Williams doing nightly health news, and he ratcheted up promotion for John Matarese's nightly “Don't Waste Your Money” consumer reports, hoping to steal viewers from Howard Ain, Channel 12's “Troubleshooter.”

        The latest “news you can use” element is Michael Flannery's weekly “9 On Your Kids Side” story soliciting help for a child in need.

        “The question is: Why would viewers want to switch to your station? The current answer is Michael Flannery,” Mr. Morford says.

        “What we choose to cover, and how well we cover it in a 30-minute newscast, makes the all the difference for the audience.”

        Getting the viewers to watch, however, is a problem with ABC's dismal prime-time ratings. That's why Channel 9 has mounted its first billboard campaign in years for this May's sweeps.

        “Fixing (the ratings) problem requires re-earning the position before it's offered,” Mr. Morford says. “All we can do is stay focused and put content on the air that people find valuable.”

Channel 19

        Rarely will a news director suggest canceling a newscast, but that's what Channel 19's Pat Casey did in November.

Station: WXIX-TV (Channel 19)
Age: 45
Married with three children
Washington, D.C.
Cincinnati resident since: February 2000
News director experience: Four years in Portland, Maine, and Cincinnati.
Other TV experience: Managing editor for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and The Crusaders syndicated news show; also worked in Baltimore and Washington
Most unusual TV job: Story coordinator for syndicated Extra entertainment news show.
        He dropped the low-rated 11:30 a.m. news to funnel those resources into a fourth hour (5-9 a.m.) of morning news.

        “It was an easy sacrifice to make, a no-brainer,” says Mr. Casey, 45, a Portland, Maine, news director in the early 1990s.

        The move fit Channel 19's strategy of being an alternative to Tristate viewers. In the morning, Channel 19 sticks with local news, weather, traffic and personalities when the other stations switch to network newscasts.

        Channel 19's signature Ten O'Clock News, “Cincinnati's first and only” prime-time news, has steadily gained viewers since its 1993 launch. Last May, Channel 19's 10 p.m. news had a bigger audience than the 11 p.m. news on Channels 9 or 5.

        Starting Wednesday, Channel 19 will add another distinction — opening the Tristate's only Northern Kentucky TV news bureau. Morning Kentucky headlines and “at least one major story a day” at 10 p.m. will be broadcast from a studio at Newport on the Levee, he says.

        Canceling the midday news enabled resources to be concentrated on the two newscasts. Most news employees work either 1-10 a.m. or 1-10 p.m.

        “We have essentially two news departments in the same newsroom,” Mr. Casey explains.

        Morning TV has become the new battleground for TV stations, as people go to bed and wake up earlier. Because it's completely local, Channel 19 can return from every commercial break with Bill Kelly's weather updates.

        “The morning viewers, you're lucky to have them for 25 minutes,” Mr. Casey says. “They want to know what's going on in the world, their community, the traffic and the weather. Time is precious in the morning.”

        News resources are precious, too. So Mr. Casey forged a partnership with the Columbus-based Ohio News Network, which has a full-time reporter (Mariam Nabizad) and photographer working out of Channel 19.

        He has bolstered Channel 19's sports coverage, despite having only two full-time sports anchors, Greg Hoard and Dan Hoard. (They're not related.) A second prime-time Sports Wrap was launched in August at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, following the news, after ratings success at 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Versatile news staffers Dan Carroll and Andy Trienen occasionally do sports, too.

        Not having any local competition at 10 p.m. has been a boon to Channel 19. So has keeping most of its original anchor team intact (Jack Atherton, meteorologist Rich Apuzzo, Greg Hoard). Mr. Atherton and co-anchor Tricia Macke, also one of the station's original employees, have been together since 1999, longer than Channel 9's and Channel 5's main co-anchors.

        “Tenure is much more important here than other markets,” says Mr. Casey, who also has worked in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. “Anchor stability is very important to the success of this TV station, and we intend to keep them.”

        Although Channel 19 had the highest-rated 10 p.m. newscast of all Fox affiliates last May, after the April riots, Mr. Casey doesn't predict another huge month against the networks' May season finales, reunions shows and nostalgia programs.

        “Our real monster numbers are when we're not going up against the new ERs, and other top shows,” he says. “We win more new viewers outside of the (ratings) book — in March, summer and December — than in the book.”

Channel 12

        Elbert Tucker knows he has the horses at Channel 12. His job is to keep them happy — and tethered to Channel 12.

Station: WKRC-TV (Channel 12)
Age: 39
Family: Married with two children
Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Cincinnati residence since:
August 1992
News director experience:
One year at Channel 12.
Other TV experience:
Channel 12 executive producer (1992-96) and assistant news director (1996-2001); was a producer in Birmingham and Chattanooga.
Most unusual TV job: During a 1991 Cape Cod vacation did telephone reports for his Birmingham station on Hurricane Bob.
        “I like to invest in people. We have a happy family here,” says Mr. Tucker about his veteran anchor team and reporting staff.

        Through the 1990s, competing stations tried to break up Channel 12's happy household. Rivals made unsuccessful runs after meteorologists Tim Hedrick and Steve Horstmeyer and anchor Cammy Dierking. Other stations also would love to have the veteran reporting corps of Deborah Dixon, Jeff Hirsh, Howard Ain, Rich Jaffe and Frank Graf. So far, Mr. Tucker has kept them in the fold.

        “This is a good place to work,” he says. “I think people are more productive when they're happy.”

        Mr. Tucker was hired in 1992 from Birmingham, Ala., shortly after news director Steve Minium came to Channel 12 from that station. The Minium-Tucker team built Channel 12 into the dominant news operation through innovation — launching the first three-hour Saturday morning news, adding the city's only weekday 4 p.m. news, and coordinating more than $1 million in free news promotions on the eight sister Clear Channel radio stations here.

        They also expanded Channel 12's “weather authority” branding to other news elements — the “health authority,” “school authority” and “sports authority.”

        When Mr. Minium took a Clear Channel corporate news position last April, Mr. Tucker oversaw completion of the new Fountain Square storefront studio in August for Channel 12's top-rated Good Morning Cincinnati team of John Lomax, Ms. Dierking and Mr. Horstmeyer. Mr. Tucker notes that Channel 12 invested more than $500,000 in the permanent remote facility “during lean times for all media.”

        Mr. Tucker knows that Channel 12's streak has been a combination of stable personnel, strong network, good promotion and luck. He knows that will change someday.

        “The other stations are formidable competitors,” Mr. Tucker said after November sweeps. “Even though we've had a heck of a good run, they're going to keep coming at us with every tool available.”

        Channel 12 doesn't have a helicopter or an I-Team. It doesn't have the biggest newsroom staff in town, though Mr. Tucker won't talk specifics. “We make up for it in desire and dedication,” he says.

        His job, he says, is “to find the most effective use for all the tools in our tool box.”

        And to keep his people happy, and not let them jump the fence to another station.


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