Ahern out at Channel 2

One of the deacons at The Church of Tisch has been shown the door.

WBBM-TV General Manger Joe Ahern was fired today after six years at the CBS-owned station, this after they moved into new digs on Washington Blvd. in the Loop and started broadcasting their news in HD.

Replacing Ahern is Bruno Cohen, who is currently GM at CBS’ duopoly in Sacramento, KOVR-TV and KMAX-TV.

Ahern was brought in to boost the ratings for the perennial low-rated station in 2002 by conducting talent raids, purchasing more viable programming (including Rachael Ray, Judge Judy, and stealing Dr. Phil from crosstown rival WMAQ-TV), and increasing the station’s presence in the community.

But it was all to no avail as WBBM continued to struggle in the ratings, well behind the station he used to work for, ABC-owned WLS-TV.

Ahern recently made headlines for all the wrong reasons from having employees foot the bill for an expensive lunch to marble showers installed in his private bathroom. He was also named in a lawsuit by Amy Jacobson and one member of the Stebic family, for secretly videotaping Jacobson at their house and putting the video on the air. As a result, Jacobson lost her job at WMAQ.

Thought: For anyone who thought Joe Ahern turned WLS-TV into a powerhouse and thought he would do the same for WBBM, you’re wrong. Keep in mind when Ahern started at WLS in 1985 succeeding Dennis Swanson, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, and The Oprah Winfrey Show were already there – not to mention WLS’ hiring of familiar faces like Jerry Taft, Linda Yu, Roger Ebert, and John Drury. All of this happened under Swanson’s watch. He bought the shows, he hired those personalities, he turned WLS around from a laughingstock to a ratings dynamo. When WLS took over the top spot in local news in March 1986, Ahern was only there a couple of months.

Give Ahern credit though, for keeping WLS on the top of the ratings charts during the twelve years he was there. Though he acquired hit syndicated shows under his watch (Win, Lose, or Draw and Inside Edition), there were misses as well (game show strip The Challengers, and talk shows hosted by Carnie Wilson and Byron Allen.)

But one of the most asinine things he did at WLS was forbade the station’s personalities from appearing on local telethon or on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight because they aired on competing stations. It’s understandable for your talent not to appear on your rivals – but not for a telethon or a non-profit public TV station? Give me a break.

When Ahern arrived at WBBM, he did acquire Judy and Phil – but accomplished little else (he did hire Diann Burns away from WLS. Does that count?) There was no Oprah Winfrey to groom (that was Swanson’s job, anyway.) There was no Wheel or Jepoardy! -type of blockbuster for them to air. The station is no better off before he arrived.

If he really wanted to accomplish something, maybe he could have improved both the analog and HD over-the-air signal (which I still can’t get) for WBBM. Instead, he did nothing and decided to dump WBBM’s signal on Channel 22 on cable for Comcast subscribers. One person from Indiana noted on a local message board that he can get a clearer signal on nearby WSBT-TV in South Bend than over WBBM where he lived. And WSBT is on an UHF channel.

It’s a shame America’s most watched network is ranked fourth or fifth in the ratings locally. Poor programming decisions have been part of the problem, from whomever decided to schedule the schlocky Real TV at 3 in the afternoon back in 1998 to canceling the 6 p.m. newscast for Hollywood Squares two years later (and the all-time toppers – airing the very horrid Dr. Joy Browne and Dr. Laura afternoon talk shows in 1999 and 2000, respectively.)

And oh yeah, the newscasts. When the station debuted in HD on September 22, the station unveiled what I thought was the worst news set I’ve ever seen in any market. Are all those monitors behind the anchors really necessary? Or is that the legacy of Joe Ahern in the back? (or perhaps Bill Applegate?)

No, Ahern’s legacy will be remembered as a tyrant who made people do what he wants the way he wanted it. Whether it’s making you pay for his lunch or his marble shower, he symbolized the boss every employee loved to hate. And to think this man was employed by the same people who employed Bill Kurtis, Walter Jacobson, and Walter Cronkite. But when the ownership changed from the legendary William Paley to Larry “Cheapskate” Tisch, everything started to suffer. And much like the days when Tisch ran CBS – and into the ground mind you – someone had to take the fall when things go wrong. And that’s true not only under current CBS ownership, but of all the major broadcast networks and a few broadcast groups (like Sinclair.)

You know what they say: What goes around – comes around. Ahern may be gone – but his stench remains and will take a lot of time to get rid of. With the ghost of Larry Tisch hanging around, it’s not going to be easy.

T Dog’s Think Tank Archive: The Mess at Channel 2


2 thoughts on “Ahern out at Channel 2

    • Joe was widely regarded as one of the bigggest jerks in media. Now he has nowhere to unleash his huge ego than upon his family and unsupecting neighbors. Life does work outthe way it shoud…it just takes longer than you would expect.


    • I read in the Sun-Times today that Ahern lived on an estate in Barrington and owned several ponies. Wow, this man was seriously paid. I hope GMs who live in smaller markets don’t read this story – many of them can’t afford ten dogs let alone a few ponies.

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