- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

The debut of WUSA-TV’s 7 p.m. newscast drew about 115,000 local households Monday, more than twice the number of homes Channel 9 averaged in that time period in September 2002, when “The Weakest Link” and “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” aired there.

Still, “USA Tonight,” as the CBS affiliate calls the newscast, finished third in its time period. “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw” on WRC-TV (Channel 4) drew about 157,000 households and “Wheel of Fortune” on ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) drew about 136,000, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc.

About 112,000 households tuned into a rerun of “Friends” on Fox affiliate WTTG-TV (Channel 5).

“We were pleased with the initial broadcast, but we recognize that this is a marathon, not a one-night sprint,” said David Roberts, WUSA’s vice president and news director.

Mr. Roberts and other WUSA executives have promised “USA Tonight” will be a serious, high-minded newscast, with longer stories and analysis.

The half-hour program achieved that goal on its slickly produced opening night, with lengthy reports on the reaction to President Bush’s Sunday night speech on the war in Iraq, the Supreme Court’s hearing on the new campaign finance law and the funding problems facing the Pentagon’s September 11 memorial.

The inaugural edition also featured a report on Rep. Thomas M. Davis III’s recent visit to Iraq. In an unusual move, WUSA loaned the Northern Virginia Republican a camera and asked him to film his trip; the piece included a deft debriefing of Mr. Davis by reporter Gary Reals.

Some viewers and WUSA staffers grumbled the show didn’t feature enough local news. They noted that the latest developments on the arson investigation in the District and Prince George’s County were reduced to a brief story that anchor Derek McGinty read at the start of the show.

WUSA executives said “USA Tonight” is a work in progress. Case in point: A longer piece on the arson probe was expected to air during last evening’s broadcast.

Where’s Del?

WJLA pulled Del Walters out of the anchor chair of its weekday 5 p.m. newscast last week after it announced CNN veteran Leon Harris will become the program’s co-anchor, as well as the co-anchor of its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, in late October.

Keeping the seat warm until then: Doug McKelway, who is expected to become WJLA’s weekend anchor and Mr. Harris’ chief substitute.

Mr. Walters, a popular WJLA veteran who has been working without a contract, is still reporting to the station’s Arlington newsroom. Removing him from the anchor chair early was a strategic decision, say WJLA managers, who are talking to him about a new assignment at the station.

Mr. Harris signs off at CNN Oct. 10. The date of his WJLA debut has not been set, but most soothsayers bet it will be around Oct. 30, when the November ratings sweep begins.

More Plotkin

Local superpundit Mark Plotkin’s resume just got longer. The WTOP (1500 AM and 107.7 FM) host has a new part-time gig, commenting on the 2004 presidential campaign for CNN Mondays at 6:50 a.m.

• Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com

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