Bill Hormann will be remembered as The Guy Who Replaced Jeff Heitz.
Heitz stayed 28 years at WTOL-TV, Channel 11. Hormann lasted 25 months.
At 7 p.m. on Oct. 31 -- just five hours before the optional third year of his five-year contract would have kicked in -- he was fired. The strange part is, the station wanted him to continue as anchor through one of its most important ratings periods in recent years.
As Hormann put it, he felt like a “dead man anchoring” in November. Viewers had no idea his fate was sealed. Neither did his co-workers. (At the request of station management, he was sworn to secrecy.)
According to Hormann, WTOL general manager Bob Chirdon broke the news to him this way: “We asked you to do the impossible -- replace a legend, and bring a station from the 1970s into the 1990s. You've done everything we asked you to do. But we have this research ...”
Ah, research. It's often the agent of (anchor) change in today's consultant-driven newscasts.
According to Hormann, the research said that he wasn't a “recruitable anchor.” In other words, he didn't “recruit” viewers, prompting them to switch from another station to WTOL.
During the Heitz era, WTOL was a dominant No. 1 news station in the market. Although it still leads in overall viewers, it has dropped to No. 2 among viewers age 25 to 54, the demographic coveted by advertisers. In both the May and July ratings, WTOL took a hit in that key demo in every newscast, not just the two anchored by Hormann. Industry sources said that similar 25-to-54 numbers in November would cost the station $1.7 million a year in advertising revenue.
Which makes the decision to keep Hormann as anchor during sweeps even more surprising.
“They couldn't have been too worried about me negatively affecting the ratings because management literally pleaded with me to stay through November's book ... and through December,” Hormann said.
He stayed only until the final night of sweeps -- Nov. 27. Chirdon declined comment on Hormann's departure.
For the next ratings period (Jan. 30 to Feb. 26), WTOL will have both a new set and a new anchor. Hormann's successor, Terry Thill, is expected to be on the air Jan. 13.
Meanwhile, Hormann, 40, is left to wonder what might have been. He had planned to stay at WTOL for at least a decade.
“I was hurt. I've heard two words from everybody -- `shocked' and `heartbroken' -- that this has happened,” Hormann said. “It wasn't easy replacing Jeff, but I'm proud of what I did. It was a great experience, both personally and professionally.”
So how did WTOL's Hormann-anchored newscasts fare in November? Nielsen Media Research's ratings books are scheduled to arrive at local stations next week.