Sunday, June 03, 2001

ABC spells trouble for Channel 9 news




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        So who's laughing now?

        Channel 9's owners thought they had pulled a fast one on Channel 12 five years ago by dumping staid CBS for younger, hipper ABC programming.

        At the time, swapping networks looked like a great deal for WCPO-TV (Channel 9). CBS had just made TV history by being the first network to fall from first to worst in one year.

        Channel 9 folks relished the chance to exchange older-skewing shows like Murder, She Wrote and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman for ABC's NYPD Blue and Roseanne.

        They dumped tired sitcoms like Murphy Brown and The Nanny for Home Improvement, The Drew Carey Show, Family Matters and Grace Under Fire.

        Executives at Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard thought they'd score big with Monday Night Football.

        It hasn't happened. Suddenly Channel 9 found itself second-and-long behind Channel 12 in TV news, the stations' profit center.

        And folks at Channel 12, who were devastated to lose ABC in 1996, now don't regret the move.

        They couldn't be happier with CBS' trio of Top 10 shows: Survivor, Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.Those shows, plus strong 10 p.m. programs like Judging Amy, Family Law and 48 Hours,have helped make the WKRC-TV (Channel 12) news No. 1 for two consecutive years.

        Ironically, the same thing happened in 1961, when Channels 9 and 12 swapped networks.

        Taft Broadcasting grabbed ABC for Channel 12 away from Channel 9 to get hot shows such as 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick and My Three Sons — only to watch Channel 9 start a 22-year dominance of the late news thanks in part to CBS' Gunsmoke, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Carol Burnett Show and Mission: Impossible.

        Didn't they learn anything back then?

        Bill Fee, WCPO-TV (Channel 9) general manager, won't second-guess his corporate bosses. Switching Channel 9 gave Scripps six ABC affiliates, one of the biggest voting blocks within ABC. Not that it has done much good.

        “I wouldn't say it (the swap) was a bad decision, because at the time it was a good decision — because ABC then was a better network,” Mr. Fee says.

        Everything. Media consolidation has radically changed the TV landscape in the past five years:

        • Capital Cities/ABC, a broadcasting company, was purchased by the Walt Disney Co., the entertainment company that owns ESPN and the Disney Channel.

        The Disney wizards may market movies and cartoons, but they haven't shown a knack for programming prime-time. None of the new series last fall will survive for a second season. Take away Who Wants to be a Millionaire,which made ABC No. 1 a year ago, and you have The Practice and shows such as Dharma & Greg, NYPD Blue and The Drew Carey Show, which may be past their prime.

        • CBS was bought by Viacom, the conglomerate that owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Showtime and VH1. CBS has rebounded to win two of the last three TV seasons with bold scheduling moves like putting Survivor and CSI against NBC's previously unbeatable Thursday lineup.

        • Channel 12 lost ABC in 1996 because it had no clout. At the time, WKRC-TV was one of two TV stations owned by Jacor Communications, a Cincinnati-based radio company. Now Channel 12 is owned by Clear Channel Communications, which has become the world's biggest radio owner after buying Jacor in 1999. It also owns 19 TV stations.

        One key to Channel 12's news success — in addition to having a stable anchor team — is the ability to promote newscasts on eight Clear Channel radio stations, including top-rated WLW-AM (700) and WEBN-FM (102.7).

        Channel 12 and Clear Channel “have done a wonderful job of taking advantage of all the consolidation going on in the industry,” Mr. Fee admits. “It's a different game than it was five years ago.”

        Some things you can't predict.

        Who would have guessed that Disney, with all its movie magic, would put on lousy TV shows like The Trouble with Normal, Snoops, Teen Angel and Hiller and Diller? Who could have foreseen that CSI and Judging Amy would emerge as the top dramas the last two seasons? Who figured that Survivor would beat Friends?

        “When the station switched from CBS to ABC is when the wheels starting falling off at ABC,” says Chris Sehring, who replaced William Moll as Channel 12 general manager in January.

        As they say, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. That certainly describes Channel 9's feelings about ABC, which hasn't been as helpful as CBS since day one.

        When the stations switched in 1996, CBS sent anchor Dan Rather here to promote Channel 12. ABC didn't send anyone.

        While CBS promoted Survivor on David Letterman's Late Show and Bryant Gumbel's Early Show, ABC ignored The Mole last winter — while ABC's Good Morning America helped hype Survivor!

        When ABC moved 20/20 to Wednesday for fall after 14 years on Friday, CBS instantly moved 48 Hours to 10 p.m. Friday to grab those habitual news viewers.

        Channel 9 managers also have been dismayed by ABC's habit of airing the same movie twice in one week during sweeps — as if viewers won't notice the rerun.

        Their biggest frustration is ABC's lack of interest in providing strong 10 p.m. programs to help late news ratings. ABC is third in prime-time here, and a distant third at 10:45 p.m., the last prime-time measurement before local news.

        Meanwhile, CBS programming was No. 1 here in May by almost three ratings points (24,000 TV homes), fueled by Rodger Bingham's Survivor tiki torch. Channel 12's news won at 11 p.m. by almost four ratings points — and won every other newscast, too, as it has done for 24 months.

        Mr. Sehring is not surprised.

        “This is historically a CBS market,” he says. “As a whole, CBS shows normally do better here than in other cities.”

        It's been that way since the last network swap here.

        “Taft thought that it pulled a coup getting ABC (in 1961),” the late Al Schottelkotte, Channel 9's top-rated anchor for 22 years, told me before the 1996 swap. “But it backfired on Taft because CBS proved it was the network (then), with the great strength in programming and news.”

        CBS still is the network here. I bet station owners would rather fight than switch next time.

       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; e-mail: jkiesewetter@enquirer.com.
       

       



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