In a move that is widely being praised by many local and national media observers, current WMAQ general manger and Chicago-area native Larry Wert was named the new president of local broadcasting Tribune Broadcasting on Wednesday.
Poaching Wert from NBC is the biggest move Tribune has made yet since Peter Ligouri took over as CEO, which is coming off a four-year bankruptcy and is in rebuilding mode.
Wert will oversee Tribune’s 24 stations in 19 markets, which includes fourteen CW affiliates; seven Fox affiliates; two My Network TV affiliates; and one ABC affiliate (WGNO in New Orleans.) Stations include WGN-TV here in Chicago; WPIX in New York and KTLA in Los Angeles; WTTV/WXIN in Indianapolis; and WXMI in Grand Rapids, Mich. Wert will also oversee WGN-AM, Tribune’s only radio station in its portfolio (but not cable superstation WGN America.) In his new role, Wert will report to Ligouri.
The hiring of Wert sent a message that Tribune Broadcasting is here to stay. In fact, Ligouri insisted broadcasting is its main focus and is likely to shed non-strategic assets, including the newspaper chain – which has the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times in its portfolio.
Wert’s career started at Leo Burnett in 1978 and moved to ABC shortly thereafter, where he held a variety of sales positions, including a gig as local sales manager at WLS-TV. In 1989, Wert joined Evergreen Media and became president and GM of WLUP-AM/FM. The period between 1989 and 1996 were considered “The Golden Years” at Evergreen, as WLUP employed successful radio personalities such as Jonathan Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews and former Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce (who mentioned he had Larry Wert’s name tattooed on his behind, and in an infomercial, joked he got paid money every time he said his name on-air.) In 1996, Wert was named president of Evergreen Media after its merger with Chancellor Media.
In a move that surprised many, Wert became GM of NBC-owned WMAQ-TV in January 1998, just months after a disastrous on-air experiment which featured trash-TV talk show host Jerry Springer in a commentator role on the station’s 10 p.m newscast, with Ron Magers and Carol Marin resigning in disgust (Marin would later return to WMAQ in another role.) Six months after he arrived, Wert pulled the plug on Springer’s raunchy talk show despite high ratings, forcing him to relocate to Fox-owned WFLD (since 2010, Springer’s show has been airing on WCIU.)
Wert focused on putting the station’s Springer fiasco behind him and retained a solid second-place ranking in local news and in total-day ratings. In fact, WMAQ remained strong even during the dreadful Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman eras at NBC, which saw the lowest prime-time ratings in the network’s history. In the fall of 2009, NBC decided to strip Jay Leno’s talk show five nights a week in the final hour of prime-time, hurting NBC affiliates’ late news ratings. WMAQ’s late newscasts dropped to third place during this time (but was still competitive with WBBM-TV and WLS.)
Since 2010, WMAQ’s ratings and their newscasts have been on an upswing, thanks to a strong early fringe lineup, with Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show and the addition of Steve Harvey’s new program, which is taped at the NBC-owned station. WMAQ is challenging WLS for the top spot in the early fringe news race, thanks to a weaker lead-in (Katie) at the ABC O&O. Under Wert, WMAQ was critically praised for its NATO coverage last May and won an Emmy award. WMAQ has also received praise for a much-needed overhaul of its local newscasts, which included new sets and new graphics, now considered best in the market.
In April 2008, Wert added the responsibilities of overseeing five NBC O&Os as president of NBC Local Media, central and western division. In 2011, he became executive vice-president of initiatives for all NBC-owned stations.
With Tribune now out of bankruptcy and Wert on board, the station group is focusing on the future. This fall, Tribune is partnering with CBS Television Distribution to re-launch The Arsenio Hall Show, which premieres on September 9. Tribune has also purchased a new daytime talker from CTD titled The Test, to compliment its block of conflict talkers. The group is also expected to develop more first-run programming in order to put itself in better position to negotiate retransmission consent fees, as it scales back on acquiring expensive off-network sitcoms – something Fox’s non-My Network TV stations has already done.
Also on tap is Tribune’s future with The CW, who continues to struggle in the ratings seven years after its launch. Ligouri recently expressed concern about CW’s inability to attract a broader audience outside its key 18-34 female audience, as opposed to Tribune’s older skew outside of primetime – particularly in Chicago, where WGN carries news and sports programming geared to a more general audience.