That's where WKZA (106.9 Lakewood) hit the air over the weekend, with a signal being heard as far north as the Buffalo suburbs. Calling itself "Kiss," and IDing with Jamestown and Warren PA, we're told WKZA is running a modern rock format. We're hoping to catch it for ourselves as we head west towards Indiana later this week for a Very NERW Thanksgiving. (More on that later on...)
[And this update: We ended up driving through Jamestown itself as we avoided the snowed-in Buffalo area on Tuesday, and had plenty of time to listen to "Kiss." It's actually a CHR/Pop outlet, operating from the Hotel Jamestown and sounding pretty good...]
Meanwhile in Buffalo, the on-again, off-again sale of WNEQ (Channel 23) is again very much "on," and this time in a way that promises to avoid the earlier legal problems encountered by the seller, the Western New York Public Broadcasting Authority. This time, the buyer is LIN, parent company of Buffalo's CBS affiliate, WIVB (Channel 4). LIN plans to move channel 23 to WIVB's North Buffalo studios and program it as a commercial independent, complete with a WIVB-produced 10 PM newscast. More on those plans in a moment -- first a bit of history:
WNYPBA put WNEQ on the air in May 1987 as a second outlet, to complement existing public TV station WNED-TV (Channel 17). A decade or so later, though, the impending costs of the digital TV conversion at WNED (not to mention the debt load of WNED's palatial new downtown studio complex) led WNYPBA to put the second station up for sale.
Sinclair Broadcasting stepped forward, offering $33 million for the station in May 1998. WNEQ would have become the duopoly partner to Sinclair's Fox affiliate, WUTV (Channel 29) -- but instead, the deal ended up facing a serious challenge, thanks to the unusual licensing arrangement for Buffalo's public broadcasters. WNED, the primary station on channel 17, actually operates on a commercial allocation, a vestige of its 1950s past as NBC O&O WBUF(TV). When NBC shut down its UHF experiment, it donated channel 17 to what became WNYPBA, but the channel remained commercial. In order to sell WNEQ, on the noncommercial-reserved channel 23, WNYPBA needed to persuade the FCC to move the noncommercial reservation from channel 23 to channel 17, turning 23 into the commercial channel.
It may sound like a bunch of legal minutiae, but it took the FCC over a year to approve the move, and appeals from concerned WNEQ viewers now have that approval tied up in federal court.
The uncertainty, coupled with Sinclair's own financial problems, brought the Sinclair sale to an end last year. (A few months later, Sinclair instead bought WB affiliate WNYO (Channel 49), for $51.5 million.)
Which brings us back to LIN and its WNEQ purchase. Here's how it works: Sometime soon (perhaps as early as January, speculates the Buffalo News), LIN will begin leasing channel 23 from WNYPBA. Once the lawsuit over channel 23 is resolved, LIN will pay $26.2 million, in two annual installments, for WNEQ (less whatever amount it's already paid in lease fees).
And here's the kicker: If WNED loses the lawsuit and channel 23 has to stay noncommerical, WNYPBA will instead sell WNED's channel 17 to LIN, bumping the sale price up to $31.2 million for the stronger signal.
(That's OK, WNYPBA president Don Boswell tells the News, because with DTV the present channel assignments will disappear anyway...though NERW notes that most stations will continue using their NTSC channels as a "virtual" channel number.)
A final historical note: If LIN does end up with channel 17, it will close a forty-year circle in Buffalo broadcasting history. The present WIVB studios at 2077 Elmwood Avenue were built in the late 1950s by NBC, as a state-of-the-art studio for none other than WBUF-TV 17! When WBUF folded, the building sat vacant for several years before becoming the home of channel 4, then WBEN-TV. The tower out back served as the channel 17 tower for years, until the current WNED/WNEQ site on Grand Island was built.
Of course, there was a third planned TV duopoly in Buffalo -- but despite the rumors we've been hearing, there's no solid evidence we've seen that Granite is reconsidering its dropped plans to add UPN affiliate WNGS (Channel 67 Springville) to its ABC outlet, WKBW (Channel 7).
With that, we move on to Elmira, where the city's oldest radio station is picking up stakes and moving its studios down the road to Corning. WENY (1230) and WENY-FM (92.7) are joining Eolin Broadcasting's four stations (WCBA AM-FM, WCLI, and WGMM) at the "Radio Works" facility on Davis Road beginning next Monday (Nov. 27).
In the process, they'll drop their current formats (oldies on the AM, soft rock "Y 92-7" on FM) and begin simulcasting two of the Eolin outlets. WENY(AM) will join WCLI (1450) as "Two-Way Radio for the Twin Tiers," with a mostly-satellite talk format. On the FM side, WENY-FM will simulcast WCBA-FM (98.7)'s AC format as the "Elmira-Corning Crystal Network," with WCBA-FM's Jack and Bob in the morning.
As for the old WENY studios in Horseheads, we wonder if the WENY-TV (Channel 36) news staff, long relegated to the former garage outside, will finally get to come in from the cold?
Up in Watertown, the long-running partnership of Mel Busler and Jay Donovan is coming to an end. The duo began doing mornings at WTNY (790) in 1987, moving to WCIZ (93.5, then 93.3) in 1998. Now Busler is leaving WCIZ's morning show, citing increased committments at his other job, as a sportscaster at WWNY (Channel 7). Donovan does weather for WWTI (Channel 50) in addition to his WCIZ gig; no word yet on a new partner for him.
Over in Utica, WSKS (102.5 Rome) PD Stew Schantz is getting a promotion: he's now operations manager of WSKS and sister stations WRFM (93.5 Remsen), WOUR (96.9 Utica), and the sports trio of WUTQ (1550 Utica)/WADR (1480 Remsen)/WRNY (1350 Rome).
A promotion, too, for Scott Collins of the Anastos Media Group (WQAR, WUAM/WVKZ, and WMVI near Albany): he moves up from GM to president of the group.
A sign of more changes in the Hudson Valley? WCTJ (96.1 Poughkeepsie) was heard Saturday simulcasting WRNQ (92.1)'s soft AC format, but then returned to its own hot AC "Cat" format after about an hour...
Admirers of the late Frankie Crocker are invited to a memorial service for the late PD, to be held Monday (11/20) at 6:30 PM at New York's Riverside Church, on Riverside Dr. at 122nd Street. Among the performers scheduled to appear is Gladys Knight.
The last living link to the Murrow era of radio journalism has died. Robert Trout, 91, succumbed to congestive heart failure last Monday (11/13), closing a career that began back in 1931. That's when CBS bought Washington's WJSV (now WTOP), acquiring Trout in the process. In the years that followed, Trout was one of "Murrow's Boys" covering World War II, then remaining with CBS for decades that followed.
We'll leave New York with an interesting rumor: AllAccess says, quoting M Street, that WEVD (1050) could be near an $85 million sale -- and the buyer isn't Clear Channel or Infinity. (NERW wonders: could it be ABC and "ESPN Radio 1050," following on ABC's recent buy of LA's KRLA?)
On the TV side, Suzanne Bates leaves WBZ-TV (Channel 4) next month, ending a 13-year career there, most recently as anchor of the station's morning newscast. She plans to write a book -- and to start sleeping past 3 AM!
*One story, and one only, from CANADA this week: The AM 1220 outlet in Cornwall, Ontario, vacant since June 1999, is back on the air testing. 1220 was CJSS, but that station and its country format moved to FM (as "101.9 the Blaze"), leaving in its wake an application by owner Tri-Co Broadcasting for a "new" adult standards outlet. To be known as CJUL, "the Jewel," the new 1220 will reportedly make its official debut Thursday (Nov. 24), and we're told personalities such as Jack Curran and Chuck Phillips (of Montreal's defunct CIQC) will be part of it.
[This is as good a spot as any to mention one of the newest features at your editor's new Web site, http://www.fybush.com -- "Tower Site of the Week." Each Wednesday, I'll dip into the photo albums and present another interesting broadcast facility from around the region, and this week's is the 1220 site in Cornwall. Check it out at http://www.fybush.com/featuredsite.html starting this Wednesday!]
And now, a NERW Commentary:
Those of you who subscribe to Columbia Journalism Review may have already read the latest study of local TV news, the third annual effort from the Project for Excellence in Journalism. If you haven't, take an hour or so and check it out on the Web, then come back and read on...
I hate to criticize a survey like this, if only because the intentions behind it are so very good. The study purports to measure the "quality" of local TV newscasts, by counting stories and rating them according to range of topics, focus, enterprise, expertise of sources, number of sources, number of viewpoints, and local relevance. Researchers pick the highest-rated timeslot in the market (usually 6 or 11 PM), tape a week's worth of shows from each station, and then assign each station a "quality score" derived from the variables listed above.
If you believe the scores, Boston's WBZ-TV (Channel 4) puts on the best 11 PM newscast in town, just a few points shy of scoring a "B" on the researchers' scale. WHDH-TV (Channel 7) scored near the bottom of the C range, followed by WCVB (Channel 5), mired in the Ds.
The PEJ researchers say "quality sells" -- that is, stations that cover a broad range of issues and topics, with a broad range of sources on camera representing all segments of the community, not only score well on its survey but tend to do well in the ratings, too.
Hard to argue with that, right?
Well, this former TV reporter is going to try.
First off, what about all those factors that are much harder to quantify than story count or number of faces on the screen? Nowhere in this study is any attention paid to the quality of the actual writing, delivery, videography and editing. Does quality writing by itself deliver ratings? I doubt it -- but I have to believe (if only for professional reasons) that it makes as much difference as, say, "source expertise."
Another factor not mentioned in this study is the level of community experience shared by a station's reporting and anchoring team. Ask any Bostonian who "Chet and Nat" are, and they'll recognize them as WCVB's longtime anchor duo. (Natalie Jacobson was, in fact, one of the architects of this study.) Again, nobody would argue that anchor longevity by itself connotes quality, but it can't hurt when it comes to covering more of the community, nor can it be ignored as a ratings factor.
The same applies, to a lesser degree, to reporters: Even if they're not household names in the way a star anchor is, the more community involvement a reporter has, the better his or her stories are likely to be. I'd be fascinated to see if there's a correlation between stations with veteran reporting staffs and high ratings, in this era when a two-year contract in a medium market is considered a long time for a reporter to stay. (In fairness, one of the sidebar articles to the study does recognize the value of long-term local experience, at least in the context of Oakland's KTVU, identified as one of the best stations studied.)
Yet another aspect of the TV news environment that this study ignores is the rise of local cable news channels. Again, I'll freely admit my bias here, having just come off four years working for one of them. But with new ones on the way everywhere (including an Adelphia effort in Buffalo and a Time Warner regional channel in central New York), these channels are meeting the daily news requirements of an increasing number of viewers. What's more, they have the time and people, in many cases, to do something else in this study's "Magic Formula": longer stories. (Which is not to suggest that length, by itself, is a good thing. There are stories that can be told in their entirety in forty seconds, and anything beyond that is mere padding. Length becomes important only when dealing with the complex stories that deserve a fuller telling. In short, no two stories are identical, which is why I'm suspicious of any study like this that purports to come up with a quantifiable formula for covering them.)
It's not just the news channels being ignored. In their attempt to boil TV news down to the numbers, the researchers also decided not to try to study weather and sports. Does a well-liked meteorologist or a popular sportscaster outweigh a "poor-quality" news presentation when it comes to ratings? This study doesn't even try to figure that out. The study also rediscovers the obvious in places. This year's survey was the first to examine morning news shows, choosing three markets (including Portland, where WGME scored a B and WCSH scored a C.) To nobody's surprise, the research revealed that morning news is "heavy on traffic and weather" yet "light on original reporting, enterprising, and even sourcing." Can't argue with that, I suppose, but just what original reporting would a Portland reporter turn out at 2 AM, I wonder? (I'm also willing to bet that many of the "short stories" the researchers found in the morning show, ones for which they concluded that only a photographer and no reporter was sent, were actually shorter versions of longer packages from the previous evening, or had no reporter presence because the same reporter who covered them was also rushing to two or three more stories that evening.)
For all my carping about this year's study, it has some valid points to make. In political coverage, it finds a strong trend towards "horse-race journalism," even in local races, at the expense of issues-driven coverage. The researchers say enterprise reporting and investigative work is disappearing, in part because of the financial pressure brought on by mergers in the industry. And they decry the increased use of feed material instead of locally-generated video. The researchers wrap up by discussing the overall sagging ratings of TV news. Is the industry in danger of becoming irrelevant to younger viewers? Probably. Will a return to traditional journalistic values help bring some of those viewers back? Maybe. But I just can't help being suspicious of any survey, no matter how well-intentioned, that breaks something as variable as the day's news down to hard numbers.
Opposing viewpoints are welcomed!
*And with that, we point the NERW-mobile west and head off for Thanksgiving in Indiana. Don' forget to check out fybush.com for a new Tower Site of the Week every Wednesday, plus your first look at the week's NERW on Monday. Next week's NERW will appear on Tuesday (Nov. 28), after we return from a thrilling one-day tour of Indianapolis' broadcast facilities, and perhaps a stop in Michigan as well. To our US readers, a happy and safe Thanksgiving. See you in a week!
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