- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Television viewers are rediscovering the local newscasts on WUSA-TV (Channel 9), the CBS affiliate that ruled Washington's airwaves until an identity crisis in the 1990s pushed it into a ratings spiral.
In most key time periods, WUSA ranks second to NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4), Washington's top choice for local television news for much of the past decade.
More important, WUSA executives say, the station has a clearer vision of its place in Washington's television news wars.
"We now know who we are at this TV station," said Ardyth R. Diercks, president and general manager of WUSA, one of 22 stations owned by McLean-based media giant Gannett Co. Inc.
The May television ratings sweep, which concludes tonight, will show that viewership at WUSA is up more than 30 percent in early mornings, a crucial time period because more viewers across the nation are choosing to watch local news in the mornings.
During the first 26 days of the 28-day sweep, the station's 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts showed modest growth when compared with the May 2001 sweep.
Its ratings at 6 p.m. were down slightly from one year ago.
Ratings for the local news on ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) were up in the mornings and down in all afternoon and evening time periods, while WRC news was up at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and down at 11 p.m.
Sweeps are quarterly periods when television stations try to raise ratings so they can charge advertisers more for airtime, particularly during the lucrative local newscasts.
As much as half of a network-affiliated station's profit margins the percentage of total revenue retained as profit come from local newscasts, which air during the time of day when affiliates sell their own airtime.
WUSA generated $73.4 million in annual revenue last year, down from $90.5 million in 2000, according to estimates by media research group BIA Financial Network Inc. The station, like most broadcasters, experienced a recession-related advertising slump last year.
WUSA and other CBS affiliates saw their ratings slide in the 1990s, primarily because of weak network programming and a four-year period in the middle of the decade when CBS did not air professional football games.
WUSA tried to boost its numbers with gimmicks such as a fast-paced "Nine Minutes of Nonstop News" segment and tabloid-style reporting, but they only turned off longtime viewers.
Turnover became common on both sides of the camera. In 1995, anchor Maureen Bunyan and reporter Andrea McCarren quit, in part because they felt the station was doing too much tabloid news.
Mrs. Diercks who has been with the station since August 2001 declined to discuss WUSA's problems during this period. However, she said the station has shifted philosophy and now believes it can regain the ratings crown through "solid" news reporting.
"First we will be best, then we will be first," she said.
Longtime staffers credit David Roberts, WUSA's vice president and news director since September 2000, with closing the newsroom's revolving door and getting the station back on track.
"Dave got us back in the business of doing real news. He's a serious journalist, and he sets the tone here," said Gordon Peterson, WUSA's veteran evening anchor.
Mr. Roberts engineered the station's turnaround in the mornings when he moved two of WUSA's marquee talents, veteran afternoon anchors Mike Buchanan and Andrea Roane, to the morning shift in October 2000.
Previously, the station had used lesser-known anchors in the mornings.
"Mornings are the new prime time in local news. We have made a big commitment there," Mr. Roberts said.
He also dropped the slogan "Where Local News Comes First" a holdover from the 1990s because on some evenings, he said, the station's top news stories should be national reports.
"The station has improved its product, and viewers are starting to respond. It shows that if you ignore real news in this business, you do it at your own peril," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a group that studies local television newscasts across the nation.
Longtime staffers say newsroom morale has improved, but some employees say the station like all broadcasters in a tight advertising market is hampered by budget constraints.
"We feel better about the work we're doing, but we'd feel even better if we had more resources," one staffer said.


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