- The Washington Times - Monday, March 18, 2002

Steven D. Hammel is trying to decide if Washingtonians care about Kmart.It is about 1:45 p.m. on a Friday in early March. Mr. Hammel, news director for ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7), is in the middle of his daily afternoon editorial meeting, when he and a group of producers determine which stories will air on the station's 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts.
It is, by most accounts, a slow news day. Kmart has just announced it is closing seven stores in the Washington area. Virginia lawmakers have approved a bill to ban so-called partial-birth abortions. Police have shot and killed a man in Adams Morgan.
Mr. Hammel is leaning toward making Kmart the lead story on the 5 p.m. newscast, but he isn't sure it has what it takes to grab viewers. It is, after all, the story of a troubled retailer where few people shop anymore.
The staffers gathered around the big white conference table go to bat for the Kmart piece.
"It's an icon," one producer says.
"It has the biggest net. It's like McDonald's. Everyone has been to Kmart at some point," says another.
That sells it. Kmart will lead the news, Mr. Hammel decides. The police shooting and abortion reports will follow, along with features on lawn care, garden burgers and a new osteoporosis treatment for men.
It is days like these that Mr. Hammel wishes his staff were larger, his budget bigger. Then, he figures, WJLA's reporters would have more time to develop their beats and break exclusive stories. The station wouldn't have to rely on Kmart press releases to fill airtime on a slow news day.

Slow news day
"There are more average days than there are days with big, blockbuster stories. It's those average days that we want to utilize our enterprise reporting skills. Those are the days we want to have stuff the other stations don't," Mr. Hammel says later.
Steve Hammel soon may get his wish.
This summer, WJLA and NewsChannel 8, a 24-hour local cable news network, will merge their newsrooms, creating Washington's largest local TV news operation. It will have about 185 employees, or roughly 65 more workers than the typical big-city TV newsroom.
According to the Allbritton executives who crafted the merger, WJLA's reporters will have more time to court sources and break news. Exclusive stories will mean higher ratings. Higher ratings will mean a bigger bottom line.
Allbritton knows local TV news is a big business.
As much as half of a network affiliate's profit margins the percentage of total revenues retained as profit come from local newscasts, which air during the time of day when affiliates get to sell their own airtime.
WJLA generates more than $100 million in annual revenue, according to estimates by media research group BIA Financial Network Inc.
Allbritton believes the station can do better. So during a time of severe belt-tightening in the TV news business, it has embraced a unique philosophy: You must spend money to make money.
Since 1999, the company has lured accomplished and expensive news stars like anchorwoman Maureen Bunyan and weatherman Doug Hill to WJLA. It also has purchased a new forecasting system for Mr. Hill, and it is building a high-tech studio in Arlington for the merged WJLA-NewsChannel 8 operation.
The spending spree has helped WJLA improve the quality of its newscasts, say critics. Some say WJLA now has the best local TV news operation in town.
The ratings, though, are another story.
On average, WJLA's weekday newscasts do not win a single time period. The station's news usually is ranked second or third in its time slot, drawing fewer viewers than the news on NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) and CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9).
"We're not looking for gimmicks or quick fixes. It takes a long time for the audience to change its news habits. We recognize that," says Christopher W. Pike, WJLA's president and general manager.

Family affair
WJLA is essentially a mom-and-pop shop, one of the last remaining family-owned TV stations in a big city.
Texas financier Joe L. Allbritton bought the old Washington Star newspaper and WMAL-TV in 1974. He renamed the station WJLA, using his initials as the call letters.
Mr. Allbritton sold the newspaper a few years later. Eventually, he and his family his wife, Barbara, and their son, Robert became the largest shareholders in the Riggs National Corp. banking chain.
Riggs became the family's main business, and WJLA drifted along for years. Through much of the 1970s and 1980s, the station didn't look like a network affiliate in a top 10 TV market.
The news sets were dull. On-air technical snafus were common. The newsroom seemed to have a revolving door. Anchors most notably, David Schoumacher, Renee Poussaint, Wes Sarginson and Susan King came and went. Viewers didn't seem to notice. Or care.
Things began to change in May 1998. Robert Allbritton, then 29, took over Allbritton Communications, which had grown to include NewsChannel 8 and eight other TV stations across the nation.
At about the same time, the Allbrittons rejected an offer from the ABC network, which wanted to buy WJLA and the family's other stations. The offer was never made public, but at the time, analysts believed the station group could have fetched between $750 million and $900 million.
Some WJLA staffers were disappointed when the sale didn't materialize. They had hoped ABC, with its deep pockets, would pump new life into WJLA.
What those staffers didn't realize was that their new boss, Robert Allbritton, was about to embark on an ambitious plan to turn around his family's flagship station.
In 1999, WJLA rocked the local TV establishment when it hired Miss Bunyan to be the chief anchor of its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
Miss Bunyan, one of Washington's most respected anchors, had spent 22 years at WUSA. In 1995, she walked away from that station in part because she felt it was doing too much tabloid-style journalism.
Later, Mr. Allbritton tapped Chris Pike as WJLA's general manager. Mr. Pike, an old-school TV executive, had worked at WUSA in the 1970s and 1980s, when that station had the top-ranked news operation in town.
The popular Mr. Hill, another WUSA refugee, arrived in 2000.
That same year, Allbritton Communications spent more than $1 million for Mr. Hill's new Super Doppler 7 radar system, which can zero in on weather conditions on a particular street and show it to viewers live. Other local stations have systems that present radar images to viewers that are six minutes old.
Robert Allbritton declined to be interviewed for this article. Those close to him describe him as an ambitious man with a passion for the media business. It is an affinity he developed during his youth, when he interned at WJLA, they say.
Banking industry analysts point out that the Allbritton family has poured money into their TV business while Riggs Bank has stumbled. The publicly traded bank has suffered from its decision in the early 1980s not to expand into the District's suburbs, analysts say.
Riggs generated $387.3 million in annual revenue in 2001, down from $418.7 million in 1997.
"I don't know if the Allbrittons see the television business as their future. The banking side has certainly been in a long, steady decline," says Arnold G. Danielson, chairman of Danielson Associates, a Rockville banking research group.

Grade A news
Media critics praise the changes at WJLA.
In its annual survey last fall, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a group that monitors local TV newscasts across the country, gave WJLA's news operation one of the few A grades in the nation.
The study looked at 11 p.m. newscasts only. WRC's late news got a B, WUSA's a C.
"WJLA does better at covering a broad range of topics. They have the best mix of stories," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence.
Mr. Hammel likes to think WJLA eschews the tabloid-style stories that dominate so much TV news.
For example, when Washingtonians were living on edge in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares, Mr. Hammel sent reporter Dale Solley to the Middle East to interview residents who have coped with terrorism for years.
"We wanted to talk to people who could explain to our viewers what it is like to live with that kind of fear every day," Mr. Hammel says.
WJLA has also put renewed emphasis on investigative reporting, generally one of the most expensive forms of TV journalism because each story often requires several producers.
Chief investigative reporter Del Walters recently unearthed photographs from the mid-1990s that appeared to show a group of white U.S. Park Police officers parading a black suspect around like a trophy. Since late February, Mr. Walters has been reporting on the internal police investigation into the photos.
Such reporting wouldn't be there without the support of WJLA's corporate parent, Miss Bunyan says.
"Many times in this business a station manager or a news director will tell you they have a five-year plan, and in six months, they've run out of money. That hasn't been the case here. I've seen money spent on people. I've seen money spent on equipment. I've seen money spent on promotion. And it's made a difference," she says.
Newsroom staffers also credit Mr. Hammel with closing WJLA's infamous revolving door.
Today the station boasts veteran reporters like Jim Clarke and John Harter, who have each logged more than 30 years at WJLA.
Newcomers, including morning anchorwoman Andrea McCarren, medical reporter Kathy Fowler and consumer reporter Elizabeth Manresa, are seen as rising stars.
In the meantime, Allbritton is searching for a co-anchor for Miss Bunyan on the weeknight 11 p.m. newscast. Kathleen Matthews, the afternoon anchorwoman, has been handling the co-anchor duties since September 11, but the arrangement is seen as temporary.
The station would like a marquee name for the job. It came close last year to hiring former "Good Morning America" news anchor Antonio Mora last year, but he didn't test well with focus groups.
CNN morning anchor Leon Harris also interviewed for the job.
Miss Bunyan says she has auditioned with other potential anchors, whom she declined to name. Some are recognizable names in Washington; some are not, she says.
Mr. Pike will say only that the station wants an anchor who knows Washington.
"We want people who have instant credibility with the audience. We want people who, when there's breaking news, can add perspective," he says.
If WJLA has the best local news in Washington, many viewers haven't noticed.
During the February ratings sweep, one of four annual periods when stations try to boost audience levels so they can raise advertising rates, WJLA trailed its competitors.
On weeknights at 6 p.m., for example, an average 176,600 local households tuned into WRC's news, 112,700 households tuned into WUSA's news, and 91,500 households tuned into WJLA's news.
Mr. Pike dismisses the importance of sweeps ratings. "People watch TV news 52 weeks a year. We need to provide a consistent product 52 weeks a year, not just the 16 weeks of sweeps," he says.
Advertising buyers say WJLA's local news has been hurt by two factors: fading ratings for the syndicated "Oprah Winfrey Show," which precedes the afternoon and evening news on WJLA, and weak numbers for ABC's prime-time programming.
WJLA's greatest challenge may be overcoming its legacy as Washington's third choice for local news. For example, some analysts say older viewers watch longtime WUSA anchor Gordon Peterson out of inertia. Those viewers can't remember a time when they didn't watch him, the analysts say.
WJLA has an opportunity to draw younger viewers who don't have those same loyalties, analysts say.
One media buyer, Howard Bomstein, founder and president of the Bomstein Agency advertising group, is particularly bullish on WJLA. The station could usurp WRC as Washington's top-ranked news operation within five to seven years, he says.
"It will take time, but they will get there as long as they continue to produce a good product. They are the comer in this market," Mr. Bomstein says.

Joining forces
The merger with NewsChannel 8 is seen as key to Allbritton's long-term plan for WJLA.
In August, the two stations will move into the sixth floor of the Twin Towers in Arlington, a 23-story office complex that was occupied until recently by USA Today and the Gannett Co.
Each operation will have its own news director and separate advertising departments, but they will share camera operators, editors, technicians and other behind-the-scenes staffers.
WJLA reporters may appear on NewsChannel 8, and vice versa. Also, some WJLA shows may pop up on NewsChannel 8 after they have aired on the broadcast station.
The merger has opened up other potentials. WJLA staffers are excited.
Mr. Pike, for example, is a fan of local public affairs programming, a dying format in local television. He has championed Mrs. Matthews' Sunday morning talk show "Capital Sunday."
WJLA would air more of this type of programming if it had a place for it on its schedule, he says. Now, with NewsChannel 8, it has an extra outlet to air these types of shows, he says.
"Obviously, as a network affiliate, we are limited to the amount of local programming we can do. There are only so many hours in a day that we have available. But with a 24-hour cable channel, we have a lot more freedom," Mr. Pike says.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide