The news division at WMAR, Channel 2, has spent nearly a generation in Baltimore's ratings basement. But this month's newsroom shake-up suggests management still believes it can pull the station out of the hole it has been in for the better part of two decades.
"My focus is 100 percent on trying to get those ratings up," says WMAR Vice President and General Manager Bill Hooper, who this month has fired the station's news director and decided not to renew the contract of veteran anchor Brian Wood. "You've just got to believe, otherwise, why come to work? We have some very talented people in this building."
But flipping a station from the bottom of the ratings to the top has never been an easy task. And it's become even harder in recent years, as the TV audience, thanks to a surplus of potential news sources, has become even more fragmented and transitory.
"You simply cannot get the viewers' attention among the cacophony of voices out there," says Franklin E. Graham, a veteran TV news consultant and head of his own agency, Florida-based Convergent Communications Consultants. "Over the years, there have been instances here and there where a distant competitor has been able to, over a period of years, make a comeback. But it is difficult to do, and it is extremely difficult in today's fragmented world."
Management at WMAR, which since 1991 has been owned by Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., insists it can be done. "Sure, it happens all over the country all the time," Hooper says. "Some of our own Scripps stations have dramatically changed their positions."
Hooper mentions Tulsa, Okla.'s KJRH, which changed news directors, shuffled its news operation and has started climbing from the ratings basement. One of the keys, he says, is patience.
"It's taken them about a year-and-a-half, but now they're No. 2 in some newscasts," Hooper says. "They're scaring the No. 1 station pretty well."
Still, last month's ratings betrayed little good news for the folks at WMAR, Baltimore's oldest TV station. None of its weekday newscasts attracts even one-third the audience of its top-rated competitor. At 11 p.m., for instance, WBAL (Channel 11) averages 162,770 viewers, compared with 43,426 for WMAR. At noon, WJZ (Channel 13) averages 84,980 viewers, compared to 24,479 for WMAR.
The disparity increases on the weekends. At 11 p.m., WBAL averages 154,680 viewers, compared with 94,008 for WJZ and 30,732 for WMAR. WBFF's 10 p.m. newscast averages 70,164 viewers.
WMAR and The Sun have been media partners since July. The arrangement calls for the two media organizations to share content and resources, and for Sun staffers to appear periodically on WMAR's newscasts.
Other stations have turned their ratings around, although few have had as much ground to cover. In the 1990s, Boston's WHDH adopted a faster-paced news format that led several of its on-air staff to resign, but its ratings climbed to the point where it ran neck-and-neck with Boston's traditional ratings leader, WCVB.
Two years ago, KOLD in Tucson, Ariz., became that city's top-rated station for the first time in 50 years, thanks to a variety of factors, says Craig Allen, a professor at Arizona State University and author of the book News Is People: The Rise of Local TV News and the Fall of News From New York.
The city's top-rated news operation had just fired its lead anchor, he says, a decision that was "just a disaster." And KOLD, which had spent years in the ratings basement, recruited several new on-air personalities, including a weather forecaster who proved especially popular.
Such drastic turnarounds "really have not happened all that much," says Allen, noting that, even in an age of expanded programming, with news programs scattered all over the dial, viewers remain creatures of habit. "One of two things has to happen. Either there has to be a rejuvenation of the news content, or there has to be an addition of new, hip personalities who really catch on."
Reinventing a station's news programming requires an influx of funds that E.W. Scripps might be reluctant to provide. Scripps is splitting itself in two, with one half incorporating its Internet, cable and other more-profitable holdings, the other half its TV stations, newspapers and syndication services.
Scripps spokesman Mark Kroeger says "there are no plans to sell the station." Still, the rumor mill within WMAR's York Road headquarters has had the station up for sale for years.
Graham, a former news director at WBAL, suggests that WMAR's best hope may lie in praying for some ill fortune to befall WBAL or WJZ. The stations could lose some key personnel, or make some disastrous programming decisions, or become embroiled in some controversies concerning their coverage or their on-air personalities.
"Viewers tend to attach themselves to a specific station, or several specific stations, and unless they become dissatisfied with those stations, they have no motivation to change," he says. "What typically has to happen is, one or the other of the leading stations has to take viewers back into the marketplace by making mistakes themselves. Have WBAL or WJZ done anything to drive viewers back into the marketplace? They have not."
Jacques de Suze, a veteran TV consultant who worked with WJZ in the 1990s, says he believes something drastic is called for, something that would make WMAR stand out from the competition.
"It's a matter of getting people to feel they are missing something" if they aren't watching your station, de Suze says from his home in Montgomery County. "If you're really courageous, you have to change something that's dramatic enough to get people's attention. But that's a real risk."
Both Graham and de Suze point to WBAL as an example of a news operation that turned itself around. Twenty years ago, the station lagged far behind WJZ in the ratings. But new management, a commitment from parent company Hearst-Argyle Television and a game plan that looked ahead years, not months, turned the station into a serious ratings contender.
WMAR's Hooper, who says there are no more personnel changes planned at the station for now, has no use for rose-colored glasses. But he remains guardedly optimistic of his station's chances. Already, he says, applications are coming in for the vacant news director and anchor positions. No one, he insists, is giving up.
"There's no simple, easy silver bullet that we're missing here, it's not as simple as, 'Do this, and here we go.'
"It's going to be a slow turnaround," he says, pausing a moment before adding, "if we turn it around."