We know that WKBW – which is using its call letters in a new promotional campaign theme – rode Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar and Tom Jolls, unique promos and alliteration (Who can forget pistol-packing punks?) to dominance over its competitors for decades.
We know that a series of events since 2000 – some management’s fault, others out of its hands – has caused Eyewitness News to go from first to last in the local news race.
It was in last place when I left The Buffalo News almost three years ago. And it is still there now that I have returned and am pretending to be Rip Van Winkle and looking at everything new.
Over the next several weeks, I am going to assess how things have changed in local TV over the last three years. Or not.
Channel 7’s demise was primarily the result of Buffalo becoming a metered market in 2000; its loss of Oprah Winfrey as a news lead-in; having a hedge fund manager as an owner; having the smallest news staff in town; and having so many technical snafus on newscasts that it became a local joke.
Now at least it has a new veteran news director, Polly Van Doren, who arrived from Springfield, Mo., and appears to have been given some resources by General Manager Bill Ransom to try and change the game. She has even been able to hire two new staffers – meteorologist Autumn Lewandowski and a Web producer.
Van Doren is a realist. She knows the recovery won’t be easy. After all, Buffalo is a TV market that changes news leaders about as often as the Buffalo Bills make the playoffs. Channel 7’s news dominance in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s took advantage of that.
Back then, Channel 2 was in Channel 7’s position, a poor third in the market. Now Channel 2 has essentially passed Channel 4 – which had been pretty dominant for years – for news supremacy. Given the history of this market, Channel 2 should stay there for 10 to 15 years if it doesn’t make a terrible error.
So Van Doren doesn’t expect any miracles. She came in six months ago like new Bills Coach Doug Marrone to assess Channel 7’s product and its anchors. She concluded that Channel 7 often carries the same stories as its competitors but needs to improve its on-air presentation. That was a no-brainer. The snafus that made some newscasts look like amateur hour clearly drove viewers away.
She immediately decided that anchors Keith Radford and Joanna Pasceri aren’t the problem. Radford signed a new three-year deal at about the time he celebrated his 25th anniversary at Channel 7 in November. Pasceri just got a new three-year deal, too.
In an interview, Van Doren said the anchors didn’t take a pay cut, but she wouldn’t address whether the contracts allow the station to terminate them on short notice; other sources said they do. However, it doesn’t sound like Van Doren would want that option to be exercised. She also said that she wants veteran morning weatherman Mike Randall “to stay forever.”
“When Bill [Ransom] hired me, he told me one of the first things I want you to do is determine whether you want to keep our long-term anchors,” said Van Doren. “There was no question in my mind that we would keep Keith because he is the consummate anchorman. He is a smooth reader, he is unflappable, has a wry sense of humor. He knows news, he knows the market. And he is a constant in a sea of change … Joanna is the female equivalent in that she is a Lockport girl, went to a local university. She’s not going anywhere.”
Van Doren feels the station’s anchor stability is a big plus. It has been at Channel 2 and Channel 4, which have lost some valuable people but have kept their veteran evening anchors.
“Changes, whether they are good or bad, signal a difference for the viewer,” said Van Doren. “The news anchors and reporters become part of their families. And Buffalo is very traditional.”
Of course, traditions die hard here. A picture of Irv, Rick and Tom was prominently displayed on the first floor of Channel 7 for years. Van Doren ordered it moved to the second floor, near where employees snack. She plans to replace it with a picture of Radford, Pasceri, meteorologist Aaron Mentkowski and sports anchor Jeff Russo.
“It is an iconic picture,” Van Doren said. “But in my mind as a newcomer and someone who was brought in to effect change and invigorate the product, I felt that it was important to relocate that photograph so it is not the thing that everybody walks by … You can’t function in life if you dwell on the fact that your best days are behind you.”
She also doesn’t dwell on the competitive disadvantages that Channel 7 is operating under, like its smaller staff.
“You look at how you can maximize what you have and you don’t dwell on the negative,” she said. “If all we did all day was sit around and say we have X number of people fewer than station Y and Z, what good would that be? You have to be optimistic about what you do have.”
But not having the personnel of Y (Channel 2) and Z (Channel 4) does require adjustments.
“You have to be creative and there are stories that you choose not to cover because they don’t matter as much to you as other stories,” she said. “You cover stories that … the competition might overlook because they are so busy covering the so-called obligatory news of the day.”
She said she believes Ed Reilly, a photographer who has turned into a quality reporter, is finding those stories. “Ed is really growing in his ability to be our Charles Kuralt,” said Van Doren. “I was teasing him and telling him I was going to start calling it ‘On the Road with Reilly.’ He has done some pieces lately that people love, remember and they talk about.” They included a profile of an 88-year-old woman learning to be a competitive ballroom dancer.
She claims that Channel 7 has more on-air staffers “per capita” than its competitors who were born or educated here. The list includes Jason Gruenauer, Kyla Igoe, Rachel Elzufon and Patrick Taney.
Taney is a morning co-anchor with Ginger Geoffery, though Van Doren realizes that many Western New Yorkers don’t know it. She said her greatest focus is on the morning show, which ranks a poor third and didn’t get sampled much even as Channel 4 lost its entire morning anchor team.
“I think the people that are on that newscast are the right people,” said Van Doren. “People don’t know Ginger and Patrick because they are not seen on an evening broadcast.”
Van Doren plans to have them do stories that will air in the evening and to promote them more. Unfortunately for Channel 7, viewership of its early evening newscasts is low, partly because of the disappointing lead-in it gets from Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show. Van Doren acknowledges the news lead-in is a “big issue,” as illustrated by the fact that Channel 7 beats Channel 2 for second place at 11 p.m. on some nights that ABC provides a big lead-in. “That absolutely must have had them clutching their heart,” Van Doren said of Channel 2 leaders.
I almost didn’t have the heart to tell Van Doren how difficult it is going to be for Channel 7 to recapture any news magic because visions of all of its mistakes will take a long time to disappear. But she’s worked in four markets over 32 years and knows it won’t be easy.
“I wanted to go to where I would matter and have direct hands-on impact and what better place than a station that people still have fondness for?” asked Van Doren. “They have such fond memories of WKBW in its heyday that they want us to return to our rightful place.”
She realizes that might take 15 years. “It might,” said Van Doren. “Absolutely, it might. But I don’t anticipate it will take near that to make a dent.”
If that happens, some former fans of Irv, Tom and Rick and the old WKBW will be clutching their hearts in a positive way.