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Decades before Channel 2 News was asking the tough questions, it was facing one of its own: Will it ever get out of third place in local news and stop being a local joke?

Channel 2’s emergence as arguably the top local news station in town is one of the best local media stories in decades, worthy of the latest story on my Rip Van Winkle tour after being away from The News for almost three years.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the chance of Channel 2 News becoming known for stability in the 21st century was about equal to the chances that Charlie Sheen would ever be considered the most stable actor in the Sheen family.

Channel 2 reporter Scott Brown, the only news reporter at the station for the lows in the 1980s and the highs today, remembers how bad things were three decades ago. “It was kind of like playing for the 1962 New York Mets,” cracked Brown of the team managed by the late Casey Stengel that lost three-quarters of its games.

The remarkable rise of Channel 2 from worst to first over the last several years is the result of all those things that made Channel 7 so dominant in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and Channel 4 No. 1 for more than a decade after people meters began measuring ratings in April of 2000.

Channel 2 has stable ownership from Gannett; smart leadership; a long-standing anchor team; hard-driving reporters; a strong news image; and an exceptional promotional campaign that plays to what “Mad Men” creative genius Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has said is the key to advertising: happiness.

Who didn’t get happy when they watched a Channel 2 promo featuring popular local spots and people in Western New York to the tune of “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls? It was the prequel to the station’s new uplifting promo with the theme “This Is Home.”

The days and nights can’t get much better these days for Channel 2. During the February sweeps, it won the ratings battle with Channel 4 in the early morning and the early evening news block from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in household viewership and had a bigger margin of victory in the demographics group that advertisers love.

Channel 4, which gets a much better lead-in from CBS prime-time programming than Channel 2 gets from NBC, remains No. 1 at 11 p.m. in household ratings. However, Channel 2 is very close in the demographic areas in the time slot, and the demos often help predict the future.

It was hard to imagine anything like this could ever happen in the 1980s or 1990s. Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner, a North Tonawanda native who started his career at The Buffalo News and has worked at Channel 4 and Channel 7 as well, remembers hearing the joke in the 1990s that “you could hear the clickers on remote controls” when NBC’s huge hit “ER” featuring George Clooney finished at 11 p.m.

He knew what he was getting into when he was promoted from Channel 2’s general sales manager to become the station’s 25th general manager in almost 50 years in 2003. That’s an average of one GM every two years, which seems like an awful lot even before you add the fact that one GM was there for 10 years.

It wasn’t like some of the GMs didn’t try to get Channel 2 into the game. Many Western New Yorkers might not remember that Channel 4 anchor Don Postles, retired Channel 7 anchor Susan Banks and Channel 4 meteorologist Don Paul all worked at Channel 2 at various times.

Toellner, who will celebrate his 10th anniversary as GM in August, optimistically told a reporter in 2003 that he expected it would take five years to become No. 1 in local news.

“Yes, it was harder than I thought it would be,” Toellner conceded this week. “It takes a long time to change already-held views and perceptions. We definitely changed the way we do news and we built up constancy of anchors, which we never had in the history of WGRZ. We were lucky to find great talent and to have an environment to keep it flourishing.”

The primary male anchor, Scott Levin, joined Channel 2 in 1998, and his 15 years at the station is the shortest term of the main anchors. His co-anchor for the past 12 years, Maryalice Demler, will celebrate her 20th anniversary at the station in September. Meteorologist Kevin O’Connell came over from Channel 4 almost 20 years ago. Sports anchor Ed Kilgore, who has relinquished his 11 p.m. anchor slot to Adam Benigni, has been at the station since 1973. Benigni, who is poised to take over for Kilgore, has been at the station for almost 16 years. Now that’s stability.

The competition also helped Channel 2. Channel 7 imploded in the last decade, cutting its staff, allowing the powerful lead-in from “Oprah” to head over to Channel 4 and making so many technical mistakes during newscasts that it became the joke that Channel 2 once was.

Channel 4 kept the stability of its anchor team of Don Postles, Jacquie Walker and Don Paul, but it lost many valuable veterans and replaced them with inexperienced newcomers who were learning on the job.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Toellner said of the competition helping. “We have very good competition and it is an inspiration to come with our A game every day.”

Channel 2 certainly gets an A for innovation. The biggest move it made was to venture into the world of advocacy journalism after listening to consultants, doing some research and talking to staffers.

“We did an analysis on what the ‘On Your Side’ brand meant to Buffalo,” said Toellner. “It basically meant fixing your refrigerator … We wanted viewers to think we were doing things for them in order to contribute to the greater good … We saw a need to stand up for everyday folks of this community.”

The promotional phrases that became part of its advocacy pitch – “Standing up for Western New York” and “Asking the Tough Questions” – became as much a part of the local vocabulary as “talkin’ proud,” “wide right,” “Do you know where your children are?” and “no goal.”

Brown said he believes the station’s coverage of the 2004-05 Erie County budget crisis typified its advocacy approach and was a game-changer. “That put us on the map and in front of people’s minds that we were doing hard-hitting journalism,” said Brown.

Of course, the danger with in-your-face advocacy journalism and self-promotion is that it can become irritating and annoying to viewers who prefer the news the more traditional way of not taking sides. Toellner deflects the criticism.

“I think status quo politicians are annoyed,” he said. “We try to be everyone’s favorite newscast … but we can’t be for everybody. We are all challenging the status quo, and standing up for taxpayers and people to make our hometown work for a long time.”

The station also was the best at embracing the Internet and has implemented some effective minor innovations. They included an ESPN-like rundown of stories coming up on newscasts, an innovation that was tweaked this week when the station introduced some sharp new graphics. In addition, Channel 2 has premiered several local programs, including a health show, a political debate show, a positive show about WNY life and a late-night comedy show.

“We want to be the best local station here,” said Toellner. “It takes more than just news programming. We’ve had some mixed results, but we didn’t regret any of it.”

The station has had its least success with a 10 p.m. weeknight newscast on WNYO-TV in which it carried the most important stories of the day in reverse order. It dropped that silly gimmick this week. Channel 4’s 10 p.m. newscast on sister station WNLO-TV has dominated that half hour, but the announcement this week that Channel 2’s 10 p.m. news is going over to Fox affiliate WUTV and it will air seven nights a week starting April 8 could be a game-changer.

Channel 2 has used the 10 p.m. newscast to give a longer sports report. Unlike its rivals, Channel 2 has not downsized its sports staff. It has four on-air sports staffers, twice as many as its rivals.

“I think it reflects our community,” said Toellner, adding that its network, NBC carries “Sunday Night Football,” the National Hockey League and the Olympics. ““We think sports are a big part of the fabric of WNY.”

In a way, the station that used to be a lovable loser like the Mets now has something in common with sports fans of successful franchises: It can look at all the awards it has won and all of its recent ratings victories and proudly shout “We’re No. 1.”

“We made steady progress,” said Toellner. “It didn’t come too quickly, so hopefully it will stick.”

email: apergament@buffnews.com