On the day of the infamous racist rant in Cheektowaga, Channel 7’s Eyewitness News had a 1.8 rating at 5 p.m.
That figure illustrates how deep the hole the news department is in as the E.W. Scripps Co. prepares to officially take over Channel 7 on Monday.
The rating means 1.8 percent of all Western New York households were tuned in to the once-proud station. It was a quarter of Channel 2’s rating and 30 percent of Channel 4’s rating.
That’s the bad news for Scripps.
The good news is there is a big opportunity for Scripps if it invests in manpower and adds promotion that persuades local viewers to give Channel 7 another chance. Western New York loves an underdog and wants to see Channel 7 become more competitive with Channel 2 and Channel 4.
From my emails and letters, it appears that many Western New Yorkers are tiring of Channel 2’s self-righteous, self-important and self-promotional act. The latest illustration comes from its promos. I’ve been a huge fan of many of Channel 2’s funny promotions, which have been nominated for national awards. Seeing Maryalice Demler on skates in the newsroom for a promo on the Sochi Olympics was priceless. She’s a terrific actress. (Someone whispered in my ear to say something nice about her.).
But the latest promo in which supposedly regular viewers spout Channel 2’s clichés about holding people accountable and being on the viewers’ side are unintentionally funny. They seem to be either the product of brainwashing or of the speakers being fed phony lines.
Channel 2 often does the best job covering the news so many viewers still will give it a break if they haven’t turned to Channel 4.
Channel 4 has its own problems. Its presentation is often dull, and though its staff has several veterans, the turnover in the younger staff doesn’t make it appear to be a fun place to work. And viewers want to believe their reporters and anchors are having fun.
It should be fun watching Channel 7 try to reinvent itself after years watching its hedge fund owner destroy its news department.
My assumption is that Scripps will open its checkbook in the same way that Gannett did when it decided years ago to make Channel 2 competitive.
Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner smartly practiced patience with the station’s news product. He had a five-year plan that worked to perfection. Scripps needs to borrow his script.
I’m told that the first thing that Scripps plans to do is market research, which is something Channel 7 hasn’t done in years.
The research probably will cost plenty. My advice is free.
The research will most likely help determine whether to keep Channel 7’s veteran anchor team of Keith Radford and Joanna Pasceri. I’d keep them for at least a year to see if things can improve with more resources in front of and behind the camera.
Radford and Pasceri are solid anchors and don’t appear to be part of the problem. The question is whether they will be part of the long-term solution.
The bigger problem is behind the scenes, where Channel 7 doesn’t have enough veterans with experience. I would suspect if the station had more people working behind the scenes, the recent embarrassment of running a clip with an expletive could have been prevented.
I’d hire more veteran producers. Perhaps I’d even take a run at some producers at rival stations who might feel underpaid, or try to persuade some local producers who left the business in frustration to return to TV.
One of the biggest issues facing Channel 7 is its 4 p.m. lead-in. The reason for the 1.8 rating on the day of the racist video is Channel 7’s 4 p.m. program doesn’t give the news any lead-in.
Channel 7 hasn’t had a decent lead-in since it lost Oprah Winfrey to Channel 4 in 1993. I don’t see how it can get a decent one now with the available syndicated shows.
So my radical proposal would be to kill the 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts and start the night with a 6 p.m. newscast.
I wouldn’t give up the revenue for the hour of local news. I would run local news from 6 to 7 p.m., ask ABC for approval to run “World News with Diane Sawyer” at 7 p.m. and run another 30 minutes of local news at 7:30 p.m.
ABC might allow it because “World News” does much worse here than it does nationally. It is in third place on Channel 7.
The move also makes sense because Channel 7’s syndicated programs don’t get much of a rating at 7 p.m. News from 7 to 8 p.m. would be a good alternative to the game shows and entertainment programs on its rivals, especially for viewers who might prefer news after dinner.
I’d also suggest that Scripps get into the 10 p.m. news game. Perhaps it could partner with WBBZ-TV, the independent station. It would be a win-win. Channel 7 gets to compete at 10 p.m. with its rivals. WBBZ gets the credibility of carrying local news.
Some other things are less risky and more obvious.
• I’d immediately bring back Nielsen. There is no evidence to suggest Channel 7’s ratings have suffered since it dropped the ratings service in a cost-cutting move. But it sure didn’t help.
• I’d hire investigative reporters. Investigations are an area that Channel 2 and Channel 4 heavily promote, and Channel 7 used to be a big player in the game.
• I’d hire a consumer reporter, another area that Channel 7 used to be a player.
• The station needs personalities. Specialists become personalities.
• I’d see if WGR’s Buffalo Bills reporter Joe Buscaglia is interested in making a move to television. If he is, I’d add him to the station’s sports team.
• I’d send traffic reporter Desiree Wiley to meteorology school and turn her into a weathercaster if she would agree to a long-term contract that would keep her here when the major markets come calling.
• I’d immediately kill the theme song from “Good Morning,” which practically demands viewers change the channel. I’d also consider changing the morning anchors. My emails certainly indicate that many viewers aren’t as patient as station management.
However, Jaclyn Asztalos seems to be a keeper. The noon ratings went up when she anchored shortly before she took maternity leave.
• If Scripps is intent on giving viewers fresh faces at 6 and 11 p.m., I’d consider moving Radford and Pasceri to mornings if they can be persuaded to set the tone for the day and give early morning viewers a new reason to watch Channel 7 at 5 a.m. Radford could be Channel 2’s morning version of John Beard.
• Finally, I’d air promos that would poke fun at Channel 2’s news style, which certainly would be easy to do. And I’d add some promos that say something to the effect of “hey, look us over. Give us another chance. We have a new owner who believes in us and believes in you. Try us again, you may like us again.”
As Channel 2 has proven, with a little patience and a lot of investment, a station can change its image and its place in Buffalo TV news.
It probably will take years, but Channel 7 at least now has a chance to compete starting on Monday.