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Published: Wednesday, 3/3/2010

Reshaping Toledo's Channel 24

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Even before cracking the November ratings book and crunching the newscast numbers, WNWO-TV, Channel 24, general manager Jon Skorburg had to know how his station fared.

It's been the same every ratings period since Channel 24 began broadcasting nearly 45 years ago: WNWO is in last place in all competitive newscasts.

One thousand: That's approximately how many viewers between the ages of 25-54, the prime advertising demographic, the Nielsens say tuned in to Channel 24 at 11 p.m. That's 22 times less than those who watch WTOL-TV, Channel 11, and 17 times less than those who tune in to WTVG-TV, Channel 13. In the average number of total viewers for that same newscast, WNWO was watched by 5,000 people, compared to 57,000 and 40,000 for WTOL and WTVG, respectively.

‘‘Toledo is blessed with some excellent local news operations,'' Skorburg said. ‘‘... Are we going to be No. 1 here? I would love to say yes, but it's an uphill climb. At the end of the day, what we really want to do is deliver value ... to our clients, to our advertisers, and to our viewing audience. And if we can do that, we're going to be a success, no matter what Nielsen or anybody else says.''

Skorburg, who joined WNWO nearly two years ago, is the latest in a long line of people charged with the Herculean task of turning the station around.

The difference is that Skorburg, 51, may be able to do it. He has a history of righting sinking stations, including one in Rockford, Ill., WREX-TV, which he dragged from third place to first during his 13-year tenure.

WREX was a job that Skorburg didn't need to leave and wasn't sure he wanted to. But the challenge WNWO presented was irresistible.

Skorburg isn't just trying to change WNWO's ratings. He's also trying to reshape the station's culture, which has been battered by decades of defeat and mismanagement, beginning with an ambitious owner who played loose with the station's pocketbook.

Daniel H. Overmyer, a Toledo industrialist and worldwide warehouse magnate, announced plans to build a local TV station, WDHO — short for D.H. Overmyer — in October, 1965. (It was renamed WNWO decades later.)

It was Toledo's first ultra-high frequency band (UHF) commercial station, broadcasting a mixture of programming from the three networks, until Overmyer allied WDHO exclusively with ABC in June, 1969.

As with most stations in those days, WDHO was a money-maker, and by the early 1970s Overmyer was funneling funds from Channel 24 to keep afloat his sinking warehouse empire.

By the late 1970s WDHO was the No. 1 station in Toledo for prime time, becoming the first UHF station competing in a VHF market to reach the top, though its newscasts remained in third place. Overmyer continued to divert millions in profits, leaving the station perennially strapped for cash.

Former station employees say that the WDHO newsroom, which was operating out of a doublewide, was nearly repossessed and towed away. Employee checks often bounced.

When Overmyer lost the station in 1981 because he defaulted on his loan, ‘‘the employees cheered,'' said William Shock, then-general manager.

The end of the Overmyer era should have heralded a new beginning. But nearly three decades later, its history shows financial troubles, questionable personnel decisions, and largely indifferent ownership have continued.

Even the switch of network affiliations in 1996 to then-No. 1 NBC didn't help. Top-rated network shows failed to boost the newscast numbers.

‘‘They seem to be a real anomaly,'' said Dom Caristi, associate professor in the department of telecommunications at Ball State University in Indiana. ‘‘A strong NBC in the '90s should have boosted the news ratings. I'm not aware of another case where the network's fortunes are so strong and the station's newscasts did not follow.''

By 2002 veteran newsman Lou Hebert, who was an anchor at the station in the late 1970s, returned as news director. With a gift for storytelling and a keen sense of what makes Toledo tick, Hebert's more local approach to the news began winning converts.

‘‘We were really building something,'' recalled Matt Zaleski, a former WNWO assignment editor who left last year to help run his wife's business. ‘‘Lou at that point was really positioning us to do things that other stations weren't. He was branding us as a breaking-news station. I think Lou was taking us in the right direction.''

Hebert's efforts were rewarded with a regional Emmy for Outstanding Daily Newscast in September, 2004. Even more impressive, the station's May sweeps that year among viewers ages 25-54: 14,000 tuned in to Channel 24 at 11 p.m., compared to 21,000 for 11 and a 17,000 for 13.

"We were highly competitive," recalled Jim Blue, a former Channel 24 evening co-anchor who left in 2008 after his contract was not renewed. "If the competition is at all honest about it, at that time they were concerned about us."

In the fall of 2004, then-Channel 24 owners Raycom Media Inc., which now owns WTOL, wanted a shift to more sensational, tabloid-style journalism. Shortly after that change in focus, Hebert resigned after a woman's breast in a men's magazine inadvertently made the air during a feature on a Playboy Playmate from Bowling Green.

Raycom then brought in a news director from Cincinnati who knew little about the Toledo market.

"That's when my reaction was, My god, I've got a front-row seat to a train wreck," Zaleski said.

Newscast ratings dropped in February, 2005, and again in May, leaving many employees disappointed and disillusioned.

"Under Lou, we did some excellent stuff … a lot of good reporting. I thought we had established a pretty successful approach," Blue said. "It was disappointing to see things had changed and our ratings had declined."

It's only gotten worse. The station began a long descent into a ratings morass, and financial difficulties led to several layoffs last year by current owner Barrington Broadcasting Corp., which purchased WNWO in August, 2006, from Raycom as part of an acquisition of 12 network affiliates.

Shenikwa Stratford worked at Channel 24 for more than seven years, and was the first black female primary anchor in the market. She was let go early last year in a round of station cuts.

"When I first started there, there were probably 30 people in the newsroom — 10 to 12 reporters, veteran anchors. By the time I left I think we had six on-air talent, reporters and anchors. The entire control room was automated," said Stratford, now a stay-at-home mom in a Dallas suburb. "But you can only cut so much. You cut the fat, you cut the meat, and you cut the bone, and now you're down to the marrow. What can you do?"

Barrington Broadcasting owns 21 stations nationwide, including Michigan, Texas, New York, and Iowa.

The Illinois-based company, along with the broadcast television industry, has struggled with a sagging national economy, weak advertising revenue, and more focus on the Internet. For the third quarter last year, Barrington posted a net loss of nearly $3.3 million and warned its investors that, while it had improved its financial position, it was not yet out of the woods.

In a statement from NBC, the network says it remains committed to Barrington and the beleaguered station.

Skorburg said there are signs things are turning around.

Ad revenue is up, he said, and the news product is reaching people, even if the ratings indicate otherwise. He pointed to the recent success of a Haitian "needs drive" broadcast throughout a day's worth of newscasts, which attracted hundreds of viewers to the cause and yielded two trucks worth of supplies.

Perhaps the biggest sign of competitive life at Channel 24 is Hebert's return.

Now 60, Hebert splits his daily duties between reporting, working with producers, and mentoring a young staff of reporters and anchors.

"Every day we go out and do some very good stories and we affect other peoples' lives," Hebert said. "Maybe the ratings don't reflect that, but I'm not sure the ratings are the greatest yardstick to measure our success.

"This station has had its moments to shine in the sun and we still do. There are still some things we do like every station to be proud of. We have a good group of people here who want to do well and because of that I'm optimistic."

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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