- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Gordon Peterson glides through the cavernous newsroom at WJLA-TV (Channel 7) in Arlington, his eyes seeming to widen with each step.

“Can you believe this place? I’m going to need a trail of string to find my way back,” he said.

He’d better learn his way around soon.

On Monday, Mr. Peterson will become the newest anchor at WJLA, the Washington area’s ABC affiliate, after 33 years as the face of rival WUSA-TV (Channel 9), the local CBS station.

His arrival represents the latest coup for Channel 7, which spent the last five years collecting popular anchors and reporters in a bid to become more competitive in the lucrative local TV news wars.

The station brought anchor Maureen Bunyan out of retirement in 1999, three years after she quit longtime employer WUSA after it sought to demote her.

WJLA later hired a trio of WUSA veterans — weatherman Doug Hill and reporters Mike Buchanan and Andrea McCarren — as well as Doug McKelway, formerly an anchor at WRC-TV (Channel 4), the local NBC affiliate.

But Channel 7 made its biggest splash in 2003 when it persuaded CNN’s Leon Harris — who had grown frustrated with his role at the cable network — to give up his national audience and become the main anchor on WJLA’s late-afternoon and evening newscasts.

“The key to success in local TV is people. The audience won’t watch unless they trust the people you put on the air,” said Frederick J. Ryan Jr., president and chief operating officer of WJLA’s corporate parent, Allbritton Communications Co.

The station’s starpower strategy is similar to one followed by the late Roone Arledge when he became president of ABC News in 1977 and began wooing established journalists such as David Brinkley and Diane Sawyer from other networks.

For Allbritton, adding stars to the newsroom is part of a long-range plan that included the $20 million merger of WJLA and cable network NewsChannel 8 in 2002.

The two operations — together the region’s largest and most technically sophisticated TV newsroom — now share the football field-length ground floor that unites twin office towers in Rossyln.

During the November ratings sweep that ended yesterday, WJLA emerged as the second-most-popular source for local TV news behind longtime champ WRC, but how much of this is attributable to Channel 7’s new stars is debatable.

Viewership for WJLA’s weekday 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts, for example, grew more than 30 percent each. The programs likely benefited from the big audience they inherit from the resurgent “Oprah Winfrey Show” that WJLA airs weekdays at 4 p.m., but Mr. Ryan said the growth also suggests viewers are warming up to WJLA’s team.

Mr. Peterson, 66, has a three-year contract with WJLA. He will co-anchor the 6 p.m. newscast with Miss Bunyan, his on-air partner at Channel 9 for 17 years, and continue to host the political round-table show “Inside Washington,” which moves to WJLA from WUSA.

He left Channel 9 in November after the station tried to demote him and slash his salary, which was more than $1 million. WJLA will pay him six figures.

WJLA was smart to scoop up the iconic Mr. Peterson, but the station must also cultivate its own stars, said Robert A. Papper, a Ball State University professor who tracks TV newsrooms.

“Hiring Gordon isn’t a long-term fix, but if it gets people to sample [WJLA], that presents a real opportunity,” he said.

Miss Bunyan said her longtime friend “will bring added depth to our station. We have deep Rolodexes, we have credibility, but this adds another layer.”

Mr. Peterson, who also will report for Channel 7 in addition to anchoring the 6 p.m. news and filling in for Mr. Harris when he goes on vacation, is expected to help WJLA strengthen its political coverage. It was the only station in the Washington area that did not send a reporter to the Democratic and Republican conventions.

Despite the popularity of Mr. Peterson and Miss Bunyan in the 1970s and 1980s, when they served as a kind of Fred-and-Ginger of local TV news, Mr. Ryan said WJLA has been careful not to emphasize their reunion in station promotions.

“We’re not billing this as a back to the future kind of thing. We’re just billing this as an expansion of our team,” he said.

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