T Dog’s Think Tank: The mess at Channel 2

Sure is a great time to live in Chicago. Our transit service is about to scaled back or cut all together, our taxes have been raised, and to top it all off, our sports teams continue to suck, with the dysfunctional Bulls leading the way. This squad makes the ultra-stupid reality show Crowned more watchable than most of their games (something’s wrong when WGN dumps a Bulls game on WCIU to air a repeat of Reaper.)

And speaking of dysfunctional, that brings us to another mess: CBS-owned WBBM-TV’s (Channel 2) news operation.

As you know by now, Antonio Mora has departed the station, after nearly six years to accept an anchor position at sister CBS-owned station WFOR-TV in Miami.

In a Sun-Times interview with Robert Feder, Mora pretty much showed his frustration with his Channel 2 bosses, even while praising the staff.

He explained that he didn’t have enough to do at WBBM, especially after he lost his 5 and 10 p.m. anchor position to Rob Johnson.

He says his demotion is a setback for Latinos and other minorities, stating no Latino is at a prominent anchor position at the three big broadcast networks (he does realize there are five news operations in town, right?, Well I guess you can’t consider CW a network…)

And he points out the obvious signal problems at Channel 2, a problem for the station since it moved from Channel 4 in 1953 to avoid interference with neighboring WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee – which in turn had to move from Channel 3 to Channel 4 to avoid interference from WKZO-TV (now WWMT) in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

He praises the station’s news staff, and he said he was proud of Eye on Chicago – the weekly local newsmagazine he hosted – but it was clear he was disappointed with the station management – namely Joe Ahern, the vice-president and general manager of Channel 2.

Which brings us to this point. WBBM’s poor ratings performance. The station has not had a successful General Manger since Jonathan Rodgers left in 1990. Ever since, a slew of GMs – Bill Applegate, John Lansing, Hank Price, etc. – have paraded through the door at the station.

From 1990 onward, WBBM viewers have been treated to tabloid-like newscasts, numerous gimmicks, and Carol Marin doing a widely-praised alternative 10 p.m. newscast, all to no ratings avail.

The station’s only news success achieved in the last twenty or so years was tying WLS-TV for number one at 4 p.m. in the spring of 1993, and its’ lone 10 p.m. win was in February 1994, with the Winter Olympics as a lead-in. But it’s been downhill ever since. Even the 1998 Nagano games didn’t help the station’s 10 p.m. newscast, which still finished behind WLS.

And so, CBS thought bringing in Joe Ahern would turn around the ratings fortunes of the station, as he was vice president and general manager of top-rated WLS in the late 1980’s.

Keep in mind who brought WLS to number one. It was Dennis Swanson, who now runs Fox’s station division. When Swanson was general manager at WLS, he hired Oprah Winfrey, purchased “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”, and rehired familiar faces to front the station’s newscasts. Swanson turned a laughingstock into a major contender. When Swanson was promoted by ABC, Ahern took his place. Swanson mainly laid the pieces into place.

Ahern later left Chicago to take jobs in London and in San Francisco (at ABC-owned KGO-TV), and returned here in 2002 to take the GM job at WBBM. When he came back, he found the local television business had changed dramatically since he left. It is much harder to turn around a ratings-deprived local station now than it did 25 years ago, with a lot of options available to viewers today that didn’t exist back then.

For the past two years, the station has been swamped in controversy. First, came a lawsuit from co-anchor Diann Burns against a developer of a Lincoln Park condo that she claims was racist. Then, came last July when WBBM secretly taped WMAQ-TV reporter Amy Jacobson at Craig Stebic’s house (whose wife is missing), which led to her dismissal.

Then last October, Crain’s Chicago Business did a story about the station’s ratings struggles. A week later, Feder ripped into Ahern and WBBM for failing to take advantage of CBS’ stronger prime-time slate and sticking with unpopular co-anchor Diann Burns.

Looking at the station’s ratings, the station is going nowhere – despite popular syndicated programming like Rachael Ray, Judge Judy and Dr. Phil in early fringe, even though the block is decently rated (however, WCIU’s courtroom lineup regularly beats Channel 2’s afternoon shows from 2 to 4 p.m.) WBBM’s news lineup from 5 to 6:30 is not taking advantage of its second-place Dr. Phil lead-in.

And the station’s signal issues are an outright embarrassment. That’s should be an issue for CBS affiliate WIAT-TV (Channel 42) in Birmingham, Ala. – not for a CBS-owned station in Chicago. And even WIAT has posted better numbers in Birmingham than WBBM has posted here (WIAT has even beaten NBC affiliate WVTM – Channel 13 – in some time periods.) Another CBS affiliate with a high channel position – WLKY-TV in Louisville (Channel 32) – also does well.

And where you can find WBBM on Comcast cable systems? Channel 22. Yes, that’s right. Channel 22. You can find WBBM on a channel number even higher than those of tiny stations WYIN and WJYS and a public-access channel.

The station’s betting on a new studio at State and Washington in Downtown Chicago to bail them out of their ratings mess. But viewers don’t watch news because of a cool studio set. They watch news for substance, and delivered in a way that won’t insult their intelligence.

Somebody on a message board I frequently visit suggested that it’s time for Ahern to step down. I respectfully second that notion, but given who runs CBS – Les Moonves – the same guy who is a key villain among the Writer’s Guild in their current strike – I wouldn’t place that as a given. If Ahern does leave, Moonves is going to have to find somebody who can undo this mess that was created over the last 18 years. And if they find that person, wish him or her all the luck in the world – they’ll need it.

In the words of former Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora (no relation to Antonio) – Playoffs? Playoffs? Playoffs? Like the rest of Chicago’s sports teams, Channel 2 is nowhere close to winning.

P.S. Yes, I know – I wrote a story on WBBM-TV’s ratings before back in October. It’s like I’m repeating myself (basically, I am.) But things haven’t improved since then. And the ratings reflect that.