The CBS O&Os were once considered losers. Decade-long losers. Not any more. Just check the box scores: WCBS is on a ratings high, a trend shared by KYW Philadelphia, and WBBM Chicago. Credit new talent, a solid prime time lineup, and the substantial talents of Dennis Swanson, executive vice president, COO of the station group.
"I love Mr. Swanson from the top of his 6 foot 3 head to his toes," says Fred Reynolds, CEO of Viacom Stations Group. "Dennis has been awesome. He's helped us get the right talent. He has helped the news directors get a sense of what the right stories are. He's a 40-year walking encyclopedia that has seen everything."
The proof is in the numbers.
Through the first three weeks of the May sweeps, the late news (11-11:30 p.m.) on WCBS New York was ranked second—it hasn't been that high in 20 years. WCBS is averaging a 6.0 household rating and a 10 share, up 23% in household rating vs. the same period a year ago. At the same time, WABC dropped to third with a 5.9/10, down 8% from last May. WNBC remains in first with an 8.1/14, up 7%.
A year ago, the WCBS late news was fourth in the May sweeps, behind the other newscasts and syndicated reruns of Seinfeld on Fox-owned WNYW. The difference now? Veteran New York TV news anchor Roz Abrams, who joined the station six weeks ago as co-anchor at 11 p.m. with Ernie Anastos.
Abrams is just the latest big-name hire for CBS.
In Philadelphia, KYW lured Larry Mendte, a popular award-winning anchor and reporter, away from WCAU, the rival NBC-owned station. That was last July. Two months later, it raided the NBC O&O in Miami for Alycia Lane and paired her with Mendte at 11 p.m. So far in May, KYW's late news is up an amazing 61% in ratings to a 9.2/15 compared with 2003.
A year ago, KYW trailed second-place WCAU by almost 5 rating points and leader WPVI by 7. It now trails WCAU by just over a rating point and lags WPVI by only 1.7.
Reynolds, who took over the station group three years ago, is pleased with the progress. "Our investments in talent, in front of and behind the camera, as well as in syndicated programming are paying off," he says, noting that news budgets across the group have grown each year since he got here.
But not necessarily by a lot, he cautions. "The [financial] difference between getting average talent and great talent isn't that much," Reynolds says.
Case in point: Roz Abrams. The buzz in New York is, she got a substantial raise to make the move but money wasn't the only motivation. "She knew years ago she was better than WABC gave her credit for," says an Abrams pal. "They never let her do anything but the 5 o'clock news coming out of Oprah. She wanted to show she could do more." And in six weeks, she has.
But Reynolds' best hire wasn't a news anchor.
It was Swanson, who made the ABC station group a force to reckon with in the 1980s and who helped the NBC group take significant strides in the 1990s. He turned Oprah Winfrey into an overnight star by putting her on WLS Chicago 20-some years ago. And he's credited with making most of the recent key hires at the CBS group.
In Chicago, where CBS runs WBBM, Swanson persuaded Diann Burns, a star at ABC's WLS to jump ship last year. In the late news, which she anchors with Antonio Mora, the station is up 45% in May with a 7/11. Last year, the newscast was ranked fifth in its time period. It's now third.
News, however, doesn't operate in a vacuum.
Reynolds credits the CBS network's performance with providing better prime time audiences over the past two seasons. The bigger the audience, the better the chances of attracting a late-night news crowd, he says. "We have strong 10 p.m. shows every night of the week."
"These stations turn a little bit like a battleship," says Reynolds, "very slowly. "But once that battleship starts turning, the momentum is awesome."