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Published: Sunday, 10/23/2011

WNWO reinvents itself in another bid for viewers

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WNWO reinventing itself in another bid to draw viewers

By Kirk baird

BLADE STAFF WRITER

It’s no secret that WNWO-TV, Channel 24, is undergoing some major cosmetic changes with its news operation, including new on-air personnel, format, and presentation, as well as a logo to tie it all together. But chances are quite good that to most local TV news viewers the station’s revamp has been a secret until now.

That’s because the woefully under-watched NBC affiliate has struggled mightily in the ratings for decades. But as part of the repeating cycle of changes to management, staff, and aesthetics, WNWO’s owner, Barrington Broadcasting, made the decision to overhaul the station again in an effort to attract viewers.

And this time, station personnel promise, these changes are going to stick.

Ben Tucker, WNWO’s former interim president and general manager who was brought in to reverse the station’s ratings slide and in-house negativity that tags along with it, said he understands the cynicism among area residents who have heard such promises over and over again.

He’s just trying to win over the public a little bit at a time.

"Perceptions can change and then that can change a reality," Tucker said. "We’re not saying we’re going to be No. 1, and we’re not saying we’re going to be No. 2 in a period of time. What we are saying is we’re committed to do better. And we think we have a plan to help us get better and some of that requires consistent management."

WNWO’s management has been a revolving door of new faces, strategies, and goals for 30 years. Tucker, by his own count, said in that time there have been 25 general managers, between 30 and 40 news directors, 25 sets of talents, and 30 sales managers.

"Every year something was changing ... and when you have that kind of change and turnover at a station, they don’t do well," he said. "In any business, they don’t do well [when] there’s no consistency."

That’s changed, he said. And to help with his stay-the-course vision for WNWO, Tucker brought in Chris Topf, a former sales manager who uprooted his family from New York to help with the station’s turnaround. Topf was subsequently picked by Tucker and approved by the owners to replace him as the station’s president and general manager.

Topf likens WNWO’s lack of consistency to seeding a yard one day and digging it up the next. "You’re never going to grow anything," he said. "If you’re constantly changing you’re not going to be able to gain any traction.

"If we don’t have ratings in November, and February, and May, and July, and next November, I don’t know if we’re going to redo everything that we’re doing. I think it’s one of those things that’s eventually going to take hold. And if it ends up where we have twos [in the ratings] where we used to have almost nothing, then we’ve done a great job at that point."

For example, in the May sweeps, WNWO’s 5 to 6 a.m. newscast didn’t register enough viewers in the coveted 25-to-54 age demographic to be counted by Nielsen, and was only watched by 1,000 total viewers. By comparison, ratings leader WTVG-TV, Channel 13, had 28,500 total viewers during that same time period.

To reverse these anemic numbers, changes were first implemented in March with the promotion of Amulya Raghuveer from Internet managing editor to news director, and later in May with the firings of morning meteorologist Michael Schlesinger and veteran reporter Lou Hebert, as well as the departure of Laura Rice, who anchored the 6 and 11 p.m. weekday newscasts.

Rice was replaced with anchor Angi Gonzalez in July and Schlesinger was replaced with morning meteorologist Jon James in May. Joining James in a revamped morning show are Michael Henrich and China Sellers. Kelly Heidbreder, who had been hosting the morning program, has been designated as a features reporter.

A revamped set costing nearly $100,000 is tentatively scheduled to debut on or about Nov. 1. A more modern logo featuring the WNWO call letters has replaced the longtime NBC 24 symbol.

Appearances aside, the biggest overhaul TV audiences will notice is the way the station covers and presents the news, one that’s based on viewers’ suggestions in emails, Facebook, and phone calls.

"We’re not here telling you what’s news, you’re telling us what you want to know about and then we can create our news based on what the viewers want to see," Topf said. "We want our promotion to be positive about the area. We don’t want to tout that we’re going to get every breaking news story if it’s a break-in at the bank. We want to be someone who promotes the area, promotes good feelings, gives people the good things that are happening here.

"I’m not saying we’re going to shy away and not cover those [negative] things completely. If there are things that warrant and affect more of the community, we’d want to do that. I think we want to bring things to the table that affect large parts of the community, not something that was a small thing that happened in a neighborhood that might be more sensational that we’re able to blow up."

WNWO’s strategy of positive, community-driven news isn’t as radical as it may seem. It’s the logical extension of a station trying to stand out in a crowded television market.

"For the longest time local news, especially in this market, has been very carbon copy, everybody tries to look like the other guys, have as many toys as the other guys," said Norm Van Ness, WNWO’s chief meteorologist, who has been with the station for eight years. "... We’ve got a chance to really strike out and find a different way of doing it that engages the audience more directly. We don’t have to do it like everybody else is doing it."

WNWO’s approach is also based on the fact that, as the bottom dweller of the local ratings, it’s got nowhere to go but up in the Nielsen’s.

"Keep in mind that we’re pretty much starting from scratch," said Raghuveer. "We come in with the mentality that we’re starting a new station today. At least the biggest thing for me has been to change that environment internally, finding the right pieces, finding the energetic people who are ready to be challenged. That’s going to take time and in time that will start to show on air."

So far, the new crew is buying into the changes.

Gonzalez said she left her previous job at WHAG-TV, a NBC affiliate in Hagerstown, Md., in part because of the specific challenges of working at WNWO and for the opportunity to turn it around.

"I have a friend who works at another station in town and she told me I was better than working here," Gonzalez said. "But for me, the last station that I worked at didn’t have any competition; our competition was the newspaper. I wanted to go up against other stations."

As with Gonzalez, Henrich said he knew about WNWO’s ongoing struggles when he accepted the job.

"It will take a great Herculean effort to overcome the obstacles in our history, sure. But I’ve been in situations like this before," he said. "When I got to my first job in Vermont we were a startup. We launched the newscast [and] we were a Fox affiliate in a very liberal state. We had issues to overcome."

But, he added, "this a business that can change very quickly, [and] the strategy in place now is a good strategy. We’re not the NBC 24 you know. We are WNWO. We’re different and we’re better."

Contact Kirk Baird atkbaird@theblade.comor 419-724-6734.



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