When I wrote last week that Channel 7 might be sold to E.W. Scripps Co. as early as Monday, I knew the overwhelming reaction inside 7 Broadcast Plaza would be euphoria.
“If it’s true, hallelujah,” one staffer told me.
He or she can’t be identified because Channel 7 – which relies on people to talk all the time to get news stories – doesn’t allow staffers to talk to me.
The Hallelujah Chorus continued Monday when Granite Broadcasting officially sold the station to Scripps.
“We’re thrilled,” said another staffer. “It’s the nicest thing Granite has ever done for us.”
I’ll say. It isn’t easy working for a station controlled by a hedge fund out to minimize expenses before reselling the product.
Staffer enthusiasm continued after Brian G. Lawlor, Scripps’ senior vice president of television, spoke to Channel 7 staffers after the purchase was announced.
“It was pretty impressive,” said one staffer. “He was very knowledgeable, especially about the news department. They’re committed to doing good journalism and getting us back to where we should be.”
Under the reign of the hedge fund Silver Point Capital, Channel 7 even dropped the Nielsen ratings service to save money. Channel 7 might not have wanted to see the Nielsen results anyway; the ABC affiliate has slipped deeply into third place in local news behind Channel 2 and Channel 4.
However, there is an opportunity for a Scripps comeback. Many readers have said they are tired of Channel 2’s aggressive “we’re on your side” tactics and Channel 4’s stodginess and would look at Channel 7 again if given a reason to watch.
Scripps assuredly realizes that it needs to invest in Channel 7, especially its news department, to make it competitive again.
John Kosich, a former Channel 7 reporter who has worked for the Scripps affiliate in Cleveland for 10 years, said he wrote a thank-you note to Lawlor and Scripps chief executive officer Richard A. Boehne after the purchase was announced.
“I was ecstatic,” Kosich said of the purchase of his former station. “Scripps is committed to journalism. I’ve worked at some bad companies. I would put Scripps and the New York Times as the two best companies I’ve worked for … I see WKBW returning to what it used to be.”
Once the dominant station in town, things have gone downhill ever since Capital Cities was forced to sell Channel 7 almost 30 years ago when it acquired ABC. The station remained No. 1 under the decade-long reign of Queen City Broadcasting, but it made the regrettable decision to let Oprah Winfrey go over to Channel 4 as its news lead-in.
Granite took over in 1995. Granite, which faced significant business problems outside of Buffalo, maintained Channel 7’s news superiority for several years before a “perfect storm” of calamities brought the station to its knees.
The storm included bad local decisions, the failure to keep quality reporters, staff reductions, changes in the way audiences are measured, annoying technical glitches, acrimonious contract discussions with union workers and bad luck.
The question now is what Scripps plans to do to make the local news department more competitive with rivals that also are owned by successful broadcast companies. Channel 2, which once was in Channel 7’s third-place position and now is battling Channel 4 for first place in local news, is owned by Gannett Broadcasting. Channel 4 is owned by LIN Media.
The first order of business for Scripps is deciding the fate of General Manager Mike Nurse, who got the job less than a year ago after being station manager for 12 years.
Nurse knows the market well, which could be a positive for the new owners. Lawlor tweeted a welcome to Nurse as Scripps’ newest GM, which is a good sign for him.
The day the sale was announced, Nurse tweeted in part: “Big day at WKBW … Amazing opportunity for all. Good Things Happening for sure.”
The Good Things line refers to Channel 7’s slogan and strategy of highlighting the positive things in Western New York. It was an understandable strategy since Channel 7 didn’t have the staff or resources to compete with its rivals on hard news or investigative stories.
Granite relied heavily on the experienced anchor team of Keith Radford and Joanna Pasceri to draw viewers. Meteorologist Aaron Mentkowski and Sports Director Jeff Russo are experienced and solid as well. It wasn’t enough.
Scripps would be wise to do something that hasn’t been done for years at Channel 7 – research – before deciding whether to continue its rebuild with Radford and Pasceri or start over with a new team in a market that is known to hate change. How much Western New York hates change is evident by what is happening in the morning with young co-anchors Tiffany Lundberg and Cole Heath.
Good things aren’t happening there. The program has been a ratings and creative disaster and was instantly rejected by viewers.
The way that good things can happen now for Scripps when it takes over after FCC approval is to allow the station’s GM to hire more experienced reporters and specialists.
Its on-air reporting staff needs more strong veterans like John Borsa to give the station balance between the young and old, as its rivals have.
Staffers say the bigger problem is behind the scenes. New equipment is needed, as well as more, and more experienced people, to plan and produce the newscasts.
Scripps also should consider allowing the GM to hire some veteran specialists, including an investigative reporter and possibly a consumer reporter.
The station had a history of having some of the best investigative TV reporters, including John Pauly and Lee Coppola.
Channel 2 and Channel 4 have upgraded their investigative teams. Channel 7 needs to get back in the game by hiring some impact players.
I’m told that investigative reporting is one area that Lawlor emphasized in his visit here.
It will take some time, but everything Scripps is doing and saying makes it sound like Channel 7 staffers may have more reason to sing the Hallelujah Chorus before the end of the decade.