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What happened to Channel 7 news?
[June 08, 2008]

What happened to Channel 7 news?


(Buffalo News, The (NY) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jun. 8--It was the best of times for Channel 7. Now it is the worst of times.

For almost 30 years starting in the 1970s, Channel 7 was the local news leader, and it dominated about half of those years like Jimmy Griffin dominated Buffalo. The team of Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar and Tom Jolls, as well as the Eyewitness News theme, was synonymous with success in TV news.



It seems like ancient history, now that 7 News has fallen into third place in local news ratings. "It is very sad," said Weinstein, who retired in 1998 after 34 years at WKBW-TV, in a telephone interview from his California home.

A consensus of more than a dozen people interviewed about Channel 7's fall from grace believe it's the result of a perfect storm that includes ownership's financial woes, loss of personnel and consistency, bad decisions and worse luck.


The Rise and Fall of Channel 7 News is a significant story in Buffalo and beyond, and it illustrates the changing nature and economics of the television business.

The glory days

To understand the fall, we must first look back at its rise as one of the nation's most dominant stations when it was owned by Capital Cities Broadcasting.

"It took us about six or seven years to reach the top of the mountain," recalled Weinstein, who came over from radio in 1964 to anchor the TV news. "The progress was very, very slow ... We were, in our halcyon days, one of the most admired news departments in the country. Not just in Western New York –in Canada as well."

Former Channel 7 General Manager Phil Beuth was the station's creative leader, with free reign to run the station.

He noted, in an interview from his home in Florida, that at the height of Channel 7's success it was the third most popular station in America in share of the audience.

"That brought us a lot of attention and people," said Beuth, who commissioned some attention-getting promos. In one, "Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Azar" would be instantly recognized when seated for dinner in a local restaurant.

"In 30 seconds, [viewers thought], 'My god, Channel 7 has more personality than the other two stations put together,' " said Beuth.

In another promo, when someone asked what Buffalo was like, viewers heard "dahm, dahm, dahm, dahm, da da dahm, da da da dahm" –the Eyewitness News theme.

It was a fun, demanding place to work, recalls former consumer reporter Mary Travers Murphy, who worked there for almost two decades.

"Everybody was competitive, everybody wanted to do a great job," said Travers Murphy, now the Orchard Park town supervisor.

Lee Coppola joined Channel 7 as an investigative reporter in 1983. "I remember when the ratings would come in, I would add 2 and 4 and they still didn't match 7," said Coppola, now the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism.

Those were giddy, cohesive times. "We would go on camping trips together," recalled Nancy Sanders, a respected former Channel 7 assistant news director who is now at Channel

4. "We had lots of parties."

But that started to change in 1985, when Capital Cities sold the station to Queen City Broadcasting, a company that had Julius Erving, Dave Winfield, Bill Cosby's wife and the Jackson family (minus Michael) in its group of owners. Capital Cities had to sell after it acquired ABC due to FCC rules. Federal regulations also prohibited Buffalo News owner Warren Buffett, who was helping to finance the Capital Cities/ABC deal, from owning a newspaper and a TV station in the same market.

Many people connected to Channel 7's glory days believe the sale to Queen City started a slow fall that continued for almost two decades.

"I don't think it is hard to figure out," said former Channel 7 anchor Susan Banks. "You just watch the money. When Cap Cities sold the station, then it started to go. Back in 1990, it seemed to have lost its crackle and pop."

Channel 7 lost its dominance but remained No. 1 in news through Queen City's ownership, which ended with its 1995 sale to Granite Broadcasting.

"It's the bottom line always," said Banks. "When you don't have enough money, you can't really do the things that you'd like to do. I don't think Queen City could and I don't think Granite could."

Granite, which faced significant business problems outside of Buffalo, maintained Channel 7's news superiority for several years before what is repeatedly referred to as a "perfect storm" of calamities brought the station to its knees.

The storm included the decline in ABC's prime-time lineup (it has recovered and Channel 7 still does well there), bad local decisions, the failure to keep quality reporters, staff reductions, changes in the way audiences are measured and bad luck.

From 'champs to chumps'

Weinstein and others believe the dropping of the Eyewitness News theme –"dahm, dahm, dahm" –and format in 2003 in search of a fresh image was dumb, dumb, dumb.

"It was almost Pavlovian," said Weinstein. "People would hear 'dahm, dahm,' where they were in the house and they would jump up. We had an incredible identity."

"It was stupid," said Beuth, of dropping the theme. "It was the franchise."

Some people, however, at least understood the rationale in changing the format, and say it was briefly called News Channel 7, too. Mike DeGeorge, a former executive producer at Channel 7 who now is the spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department, said it was a "tough call."

"I understand the reasons to change it," said DeGeorge, who worked at Channel 7 for five years starting in 2002. "But ... growing up in this area, it is very difficult to say goodbye to the Eyewitness News theme and approach."

Others believe a bigger problem was the loss of the winning formula of keeping consistent personnel and reporters who would specialize in consumer, investigative and feature reports.

Coppola said that when Beuth hired him, he credited Irv, Rick and Tom for some, but not all of of the success. "He said, 'What sets us apart from all the other stations is we have an investigative reporter, a consumer reporter and a feature reporter. That is all they do,' " recalled Coppola. "The decline was [when] they stopped doing that."

A Channel 7 insider said consistency has gone by the wayside. "Channel 7 created a template for success," said an insider, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was get good people, keep them in the same place and promote the heck out of them. That's what they did with Irv, Rick and Tom. The reason they were icons was they were in the same place doing the same thing every night. There was no shifting sand. There was no surprise. Every night, when you turned on 7, you knew."

Now when you turn on Channel 4, you see reporters and anchors who started their Buffalo careers at Channel 7. The Channel 7 alumni on Channel 4 include 10 p. m. anchor Lisa Flynn, investigative reporter Luke Moretti and sports director John Murphy. Channel 2's backup weatherman Andy Parker started at 7. "We had a lot of good reporters," said Banks, referencing Moretti and Flynn. "When you don't hang on to them. ..."

Flynn said she left in 1996 after General Manager Bill Ransom cut her salary to union scale. She became a Channel 4 anchor for a $20,000 raise.

"Once Ransom took over, I saw the cutbacks and the morale started to slip," said Flynn. "It was all about money. He actually told us when he took over the station, 'You guys are overpaid for this size market.' You got to give him credit for being honest."

Ransom declined to be interviewed for this story. His survival may be his most impressive accomplishment in 13 years.

"It is amazing how he has maintained his position for so many years as the station has fallen from champs to chumps," said Coppola.

Under Ransom, Channel 7 has had several news directors and just as many early morning anchor teams during a time period that requires stability. Its on-air staff is one-third smaller than its competitors. It also hasn't had a consultant for a few years, and its promos are ordinary.

Ransom could be viewed similarly to Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier in that it is difficult to know how many cost-saving decisions he made and how many were forced on him by his corporate bosses. His survival suggests his bosses don't hold him responsible for Channel 7's slide.

From afar, a reluctant Beuth questioned how much input Ransom had in many decisions.

"I think Paul Cassidy [Ransom's predecessor] was a fine general manager," said Beuth. "Bill Ransom was a puppet. A wonderful, lovely man who never had his way, never really had an opportunity. Puppet may not be a fair term. He was not able to exert autonomy."

Banks said she "saw him struggling to keep things together with what he had ... with whatever corporate was allowing him to do."

Others disagree with Beuth on the "puppet" and "wonderful" remarks.

"He has no idea how to treat people and I don't think he had any kind of handle on what was important to viewers," said an insider. "I think somebody [else]... could have figured that out and overcome the hands being tied."

One questionable decision that predated Ransom and Granite's arrival was letting go of "Oprah," an expensive syndicated show that was a powerful news lead-in. Channel 4, which at the time was owned by "Oprah's" syndicator, King World and now is No. 1 in news, quickly grabbed it in 1993.

Things got worse in 2002 when Granite filled the 4 p. m. hour with an afternoon version of "AM/Buffalo," which was disastrous as the news lead-in.

"All of it comes down to being undercapitalized," said Beuth. "[Channel 7] dropped 'Oprah' because they didn't want to pay for it."

Added an insider: "That 4 p. m. show absolutely killed us. People have to climb over that show to get to the newscast."

The ratings game

Of course, some things were beyond any general manager's control. The biggest was the change in April 2000 in the way Nielsen measured audiences. Channel 7, which was No. 1 at the time, was hurt the most.

"I think the meters started giving a fair assessment of what people were watching," said Banks. "It was a scientific measurement, it wasn't perception."

When Nielsen relied only on diaries, the theory goes, the forgetful would go with No. 1. "They'd go, 'oh, we always watch Channel 7, we must have watched Channel 7,' " said Banks.

In a cyclical business, the resurgence of Channel 2 News, which has reinvented itself in the image of the old Channel 7, has added to Channel 7's woes. Channel 2's comeback has come under new ownership, Gannett Broadcasting, which is spending money to make money and has found creative ways to expand local programming.

Channel 4, meanwhile, is the model of stability, a selling point in Buffalo.

Channel 7, whose owner, Granite, emerged from bankruptcy reorganization a year ago under the control of a private equity firm, Silver Point Capital of Connecticut, also is engaged in acrimonious contract discussions with union workers that bring more comparisons to Channel 2 in its bad old days. Its news image has also taken a beating because of a number of technical snafus after implementing new equipment that some believe hadn't been adequately tested.

The union has taken its campaign to the public, buying ads on buses. "I saw three buses one day recently that said 'turn off Channel 7,' " said one Channel 7 insider. "No wonder no one is watching us, besides the technical mistakes. I would understand going digital if it made the product better. But it hasn't. It's a mess."

Turning it around

Despite the mess, some see hope in the future if the station can entice a new owner willing to take a chance in difficult broadcasting times.

"I would not be so quick to administer last rites for that station," said DeGeorge. "There's still a very strong core group in that newsroom. With a few changes, with a little luck, with a little consistency, you can turn things around."

For now, the fall of Channel 7 is a story more shocking than Channel 2's recent rise.

"They were so far up the mountain, they had so far to fall," said Coppola. "They had farther to fall than 2 had to rise."

For those involved in Channel 7's glory days, it's a dahm, dahm, dahm, depressing shame.

"I don't like to think about it because it was such a dynasty that we had," said Beuth.

apergament@buffnews.com

To see more of The Buffalo News, N.Y., or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.buffalonews.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
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