Work To Do in the Nation's Capital
After some tough years, WUSA refurbishes its image
By Stuart Miller -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/30/2004 8:00:00 PM
The race in Washington is really heating up. No, not the race for the White House. We're talking about the competition among the local broadcast stations in the largest city where Gannett owns a station, CBS affiliate WUSA.
"This market is ready to boil," says WUSA's new marketing director, Heather Shean.
With more than $1 billion in ad spending last year and an election year upon us, it's no surprise that every station in Washington is making big moves to maximize its competitive position.
Since the mid 1990s, the nation's eighth-largest market—with 2.2 million TV households—has been dominated by WRC. That's largely due to the clout that comes with being owned and operated by NBC, which has also been on top during the same period. But CBS's strong rebound nationwide has clearly helped WUSA, too. (It's hard for Gannett to complain too much about NBC's superior ratings or to get too excited about CBS's success since most of its 22 stations are NBC affiliates.)
In Washington, as elsewhere, the local TV race is for local-news dominance, so WUSA, like ABC O&O WJLA and Fox's WTTG, is moving aggressively these days to catch the leader. "They're all trying to chase the one they see as the Evil Empire," says John Maynard, who covers local television for The Washington Post.
WUSA had once been the market leader but suffered a severe decline in the 1990s, when viewers thought it too sensational. Although management turmoil has continued at the top in the new millennium—last summer, Darryll Green became the third president and general manager in five years—things started turning around in 2000 when David Roberts was brought on as news director.
In May sweeps through last Tuesday, WUSA's 11 p.m. newscast was running a solid second behind WRC, Monday through Friday.
"The station has gone back to its news heritage," says Green, a 20-year Gannett veteran who began as an auditor.
That heritage, Roberts says, was "setting the agenda, covering real news and hard news. We want to re-establish ourselves as that news organization." His dedication to serious journalism helped staunch the turnover and morale problems.
He also took several risky steps that seem to have paid off in reinvigorating the brand—if not, so far, in a huge ratings gain.
First, he moved some of the station's top talent, Andrea Roane and Mike Buchanan, to revitalize the underwhelming morning news shows. Then he cut the veteran Buchanan loose altogether, replacing him with Mike Walters. That produced a slight morning ratings boost. (Green and Roberts wouldn't discuss the details behind Buchanan's departure.)
Roberts also dropped the 1990s slogan "Where Local News Comes First." Although he adheres to Gannett's emphasis on localism, the business of politics is often national or international in this company town. With the White House and Capitol in the background, viewers don't expect the same kind of local newscast that they would see in some other city.
WUSA's biggest experiment: Last fall, it launched USA Tonight," the market's only 7 p.m. newscast. Anchored by Derek McGinty, it's intended to catch commuters who work later hours.
"It's more in-depth news without the full-blown weather and sports," Green says, adding that the program, which also shuns local crimes and fires in favor of things like live interviews, has its own look, down to the graphics. The newscast earned a 3.5 rating in March and was fourth in the time period but has been drawing more viewers than the previous entertainment-oriented early-fringe offerings.
"The ratings are growing," Green says. "When you try something different, it takes a little while, but we're still very excited."
The show has already won a regional Edward R. Murrow award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for its series on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination; McGinty has won praise in the local press for his performance.
Roberts also pulled off another coup, wooing anchor Tracey Neale, a popular, Emmy-winning anchor and investigative reporter, from WTTG. The station is expecting the move to help boost the traditional evening and nighttime news ratings. "There's no one thing that's going to put you over the top," Green says, "but getting Neale definitely helps."
WUSA is not alone in personnel shifts. Even WRC has been making similar moves (including hiring a new news director, Vickie Burns), and Allbritton Communications' WJLA lured away Doug Hill away from WUSA and landed CNN's Leon Harris.
But WUSA has a way to go. It's too soon to worry about what the market leader or the big spenders are up to, says Shean: "Right now, we're competing against ourselves." The station must focus on a consistent identity, she adds. "We don't want to start playing somebody else's game."
She arrived two months ago from WPRI Providence, R.I., where she helped overhaul the station's image. WUSA doesn't need as much work, she notes, but she is looking into everything from how best to use the newsroom editing tools to a new branding campaign she is preparing for later this year or sometime next year. "It takes time to change the viewers' perception."
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