How low can Eyewitness News and Channel 7 go?
That was my question after looking at the 5 p.m. ratings on Election Day and the results of the first two weeks of the November sweeps.
Eyewitness News had a 1.5 rating four hours before Mayor Byron Brown and County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw were re-elected, which means 1.5 percent of area households elected to watch the station that dominated local news for decades.
To put that in perspective, “Family Feud” on WUTV beats it on some nights.
The combined rating for all of Channel 7’s newscasts in the first week of the sweeps is more than 20 percent lower than it was a year ago when it already was deep in third place.
Channel 7’s 5 p.m. average for the first two weeks of the November sweeps was a meager 2.6 rating, about 35 percent of the average of second place Channel 4 (7.0) and 30 percent of first place Channel 2 (9.0). Channel 7’s highest-rated evening newscast in the sweeps so far is at 6 p.m. (4.8), where it attracts less than half of the audience of its rivals.
Channel 7 doesn’t pay to get the Nielsen numbers, which is probably a good thing for the egos of its staffers.
Eyewitness News is the Buffalo Sabres of local television, with its younger, smaller and less skilled staff suffering in a three-way competition with Channel 2 and Channel 4 because it doesn’t have the tools to compete successfully.
This is by no means a criticism of co-anchors Keith Radford and Joanna Pasceri, meteorologist Aaron Mentkowski and Sports Director Jeff Russo, who are quality players and have to feel a little like goaltender Ryan Miller about the lack of support.
All the promise that new General Manager Mike Nurse brought when he took over for Bill Ransom in June has given way to the harsh reality that it may take decades to recover from Ransom’s reign. I’m told that many Channel 7 staffers were amused when Ransom was recently inducted into the New York State Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
After all, Ransom presided over Channel 7 when most of the decisions were made that has resulted in the station’s plight, including cutting the size of the news staff and hiring new reporters on the cheap.
One decision that predated his arrival was letting go of Oprah Winfrey as the news lead in. But the lead-in problem remains. The poor numbers for Queen Latifah’s 4 p.m. syndicated show are a big reason that Channel 7 does so poorly at 5 p.m.
It was initially thought that Nurse might be given the opportunity by the hedge fund manager, Silver Point Capital – which essentially owns the station operated by Granite Broadcasting – to spend on quality hires and make other product improvements.
It hasn’t happened.
Nurse’s signature move – attempting to kick start the low-rated morning program by replacing anchors Ginger Geoffery and Patrick Taney – has been a disaster.
Newcomers Tiffany Lundberg and Cole Heath have been virtually ignored at a time morning viewers were ready for a change. The station’s already low morning ratings have sunk by about one-third. Nurse expected it to take time for the anchors to become accepted, but Channel 4 is proving that adage wrong in the morning.
Channel 4’s new morning team of Teresa Weakley, Todd Santos and Jordan Williams has instantly caught on with local viewers and is ahead of Channel 2’s “Daybreak” after the first two weeks of the November sweeps.
Nurse certainly has rearranged some things in an effort to get viewership. Channel 7 moved its best and most experienced reporter, John Borsa, to co-anchor the Sunday newscasts alongside Kendra Eaglin. Borsa deserved the promotion, but it means he is less available to report and there is more reliance on younger, less experienced staffers.
The addition of the promising Allen Leight as a third sports staffer was a smart move. Channel 7’s reporters also look more professional, but there just aren’t enough of them with enough experience to do the same quality work of reporters at rival stations.
As a result, Channel 7’s newscasts have more fluff – and I’m not just talking about its slogan “good things happening.” There also is a supply of light entertainment news, like Thursday’s reports on the casting of the movies “50 Shades of Grey” and an “Entourage” film that belonged on “E! News” instead of “Eyewitness News.”
I’m not going to shade things. Good things certainly aren’t happening at Channel 7.
However, my spies tell me something may be happening. I was told people in suits were at the station recently, with staffers guessing they are investigating whether buying the station or the entire Granite group would be a good thing.
That may have been wishful thinking.
Asked for comment, Nurse texted me: “I cannot comment on rumors regarding a sale. It is however absolutely not true that prospective owners have been through the building to review operations. We have been interviewing cleaning services and contractors regarding building services. It appears someone jumped to the wrong conclusion.”
Still, the sale rumors have been around for months in industry trades, and they won’t go away at a time that media companies are looking to expand. An ownership change in the next six months may be the best thing to happen to Channel 7 if the new owner is a media company that wants to invest in local news.
After all, Channel 2 started its recovery after Gannett bought it and started to invest resources into the product.
According to media websites, the most likely buyers for Channel 7 and Granite stations in seven other markets are Sinclair Broadcasting and Nexstar.
Sinclair already owns WUTV (FOX) and WNYO in this market, so it would probably have to sell WNYO or do something creative to buy Channel 7. Nexstar, which owns stations in Syracuse and Rochester, is rumored to be the more likely buyer.
Of course, new ownership also brings new anxiety to current staffers, who might believe that the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t know. But if Channel 7 has any chance of recovering from its current depths, new ownership would seem to be the only way “good things could eventually happen.”