Big Apple Fix

WNBC ex-pats Leone, Doctor try to repair CBS's broken flagship

In the station wars, New York is still the biggest single prize. It was no surprise, then, that Dennis Swanson's first hires at Viacom were a general manager and a news director for WCBS.

Both Lew Leone and Dianne Doctor were snatched away from market leader WNBC. For Leone, who had been vice president of sales at WNBC, the high-profile job was his first tour as GM.

Although Leone may have been untested in the GM role, Swanson knew him well. "Lew Leone worked for me when I was at ABC, and Lew Leone worked for me when I was at NBC. I have the utmost confidence in Lew," says Swanson of the one-time Princeton football player.

"It would have been helpful had he had general-manager experience," he adds, "but, as co-chairman of the Olympics when I was at NBC, when I was on the road in Sydney and Salt Lake ... I had to delegate to someone to keep an eye on the store. That person was Lew."

In New York, Leone is still keeping his eye on the store, particularly its advertising. Most recently, he halved the advertising inventory on the station's early-morning local news show, News This Morning, which airs in the 5-7 a.m. block. The idea is to attract both advertisers and viewers with the promise of less clutter, increasing sampling for what the station considers a significantly improved news product.

Not coincidentally, pricing has increased for the time period as well. "We've lost half the commercials. We're not going to lose half the money," Leone says. The move may be duplicated in other big-city CBS markets, where morning news has been a persistent ratings weak spot.

Access, a big-money daypart, has been another Achilles' heel in New York. The hoped-for fix: The Insider,
the new companion show to Entertainment Tonight, debuts this September in the time slot of the moribund Hollywood Squares.

Overall, the revenue disparity in New York between WCBS and WNBC was an estimated $130 million in 2002, the most recent year for which BIA Financial Network data are available.

Then, as now, WCBS's revenues lagged far behind its ratings. In 2002, though third in the November sweeps, WCBS ($210 million) trailed WNBC ($340 million) and WABC ($270 million). Even worse, it was behind WPIX ($230 million), the Tribune-owned WB affiliate, and WNYW ($220 million), the Fox-owned station.

If WCBS's revenues reflected its current ratings rank, the station would pick up an additional $20 million to 25 million a year, according to a station executive.

Of course, conventional wisdom is that improved revenues will, at some point, follow improved ratings. By that measure, there's cause for optimism.

WCBS, which in November closed part of the chasm separating it from its higher-rated news competitors, narrowed the gap further in the first two weeks of February. For example, at 11 p.m., it trailed WNBC by 1.9 household rating points, vs. 2.4 for the year-ago period, according to station data. WCBS's relative ranking in the time period, however, is likely to remain unchanged.