Learning how to climb TV news ratings mountain

May 20, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

David Silverstein liked the story about the dog.

Sitting in a meeting at WMAR, Channel 2, the other morning, Silverstein, the station's news director, was discussing options for the day's news broadcasts when the dog story came up.

It wasn't a happy story -- a groomer went berserk and strangled a poodle, police said -- but it was the kind of story that would get viewers talking. And that, Silverstein told his staff, is what the station needs.

"It's the story of the day," he said, and assigned it to the top of the 6 p.m. broadcast. As it happened, the story fell through -- the dog's owner was no longer talking -- and Silverstein ran in its place a piece on escalating gas prices. Not as compelling, but important to drivers.

Brought in six months ago to reinvigorate the station's news operation, the soft-spoken Silverstein has had a tough job on his hands. The ABC affiliate is perennially in either third or fourth place in the Baltimore ratings, and has suffered for years from changes in leadership, serial departures of staff members and listless news programming. But with the May sweeps period coming to a close this week, Silverstein is trying mightily to turn things around.

"It's a brawl," Silverstein said in his office, as producers and reporters busily prepared for the day's newscasts. "You fight for every ratings point."

With rare exceptions, those points -- used to determine advertising rates -- have been an elusive prize lately at WMAR, Maryland's oldest TV station and for many years the market leader. Silverstein and Bill Hooper, the station's new general manager, concede that audiences' allegiances cannot be changed overnight.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Silverstein said. "For years, this newsroom has floundered. They could have thrown in the towel. They were always banging their heads against the wall."

To halt the head-banging, Silverstein has shifted anchors and reporters into new time slots, brought in new talent and aggressively planned news stories, or "promotable content," sometimes months in advance.

For the May sweeps, WMAR mounted an onslaught of almost 30 stories designed to get viewers' attention. One of the racier pieces, inspired by a new book, studied the propensity of some young, single women to "ruin their lives by bed-hopping," Silverstein said.

Another heavily touted story focused on "passion parties," events at private homes during which women purchase sex toys. "It's been edited so as not to offend anyone," David Clark, who oversees special projects, told his colleagues before the story aired.

A third segment, titled "Procreation Vacation," examined trips advertised as helping people relax from the pressure of trying to have children. The reporter interviewed a couple who, after attempting various treatments for years, went on one such vacation; the woman came home pregnant.

The station also aired a story about the so-called "B.A.R.F. diet," a startling acronym that stands for bones and raw food, and a segment on a new type of liposuction that uses an unusually thin wand to "melt" fat before sucking it out.

Building the staff

Silverstein's predecessor, Connie Howard, left Channel 2 abruptly almost a year ago after spending 16 months trying, without much success, to boost the station's news audience.

When he arrived in November, Silverstein was faced with filling seven open positions on the staff. Three weeks ago, he lured assignment editor Meg Jollett away from Fox affiliate WBFF, Channel 45. Other hires included reporters Joce Sterman and Megan Pringle, and producer Sabrina Agostini, who said her task was to "work for our audience, rather than follow the competition."

Another new hire is Al Petrasko, the news operations manager and a 30-year veteran of television news.

"You've got to have the kitchen working first before you can have a great restaurant, and the kitchen's been neglected here," Petrasko said. "Tell them they're good, tell them they're bad, but don't ignore them. They've been ignored for a long time."

Petrasko said the station is "still putting people in the right places, getting the right equipment," and he anticipates good results. "It borders on the exciting," he said, chuckling.

In an attempt to boost the profile of Good Morning Maryland, the station's signature daybreak program, Silverstein moved Denise Dory, who was working a split shift every day, into the anchor spot. As of February, he arranged to have the show simulcast on radio stations WCBM-AM 680 and WVIE-AM 1370.

Last week, WMAR's news department was elated to hear that it had received 12 regional Emmy Award nominations for work in 2006, more than its main Baltimore competitors, WBAL, Channel 11, the NBC affiliate, which received nine nominations, and CBS's WJZ, Channel 13, which got five. Winners will be announced on June 16.

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