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Things are looking up for Buffalo’s Channel 7 as member of E.W. Scripps

WKBW-TV is about to celebrate its second anniversary as a member of the E.W. Scripps Company.

In some ways, it has a lot to celebrate.

Scripps has poured money into the infrastructure of Channel 7. The size and quality of Channel 7’s reporting staff has increased. The station has an impressive new female anchor. The news product has noticeably improved.

The needle hasn’t advanced to the same degree as the quality, but there have been positive signs.

Channel 7 often gets a little more than half the rating of its rivals. But over the first three weeks of the May sweeps, it is getting significant percentage gains from the low numbers in all news time periods from a year ago. It is up by 28 percent at 6 p.m. and up 11 percent at 11 p.m. and occasionally beats or comes close to second-place Channel 2.

Channel 7 General Manager Michael Nurse said Scripps has been patient and understands it is a growth process. Channel 2’s recovery was helped by Channel 7’s self-destruction. Nurse thinks an opening could be coming for his station.

“I think you are going to see dramatic changes over the next 12 to 18 months,” said Nurse. “There are other changes in the market, ownership changes that are happening … I think growth opportunities will present themselves.”

Nurse obviously was referring to Nexstar, which is expected to become Channel 4’s owner by year’s end and has a cost-cutting reputation that could damage that station’s impressive recent ratings gains.

“It’s been an adventurous two years,” said Nurse. “When I look at where we are as opposed to where we were almost two years ago, I think we’re in a good position to maximize the opportunities in the marketplace.”

He wouldn’t say if the recovery process has been harder than Scripps thought it would be.

“It is always hard in today’s viewership model,” said Nurse. “You’re asking people to change habits. And news, especially morning news, is very habit-driven. We tell people that we are running a restaurant and you have to put out your best food every day, welcome people at the door. Occasionally, there is a grease fire at the place down the street where they normally go and you just welcome them and ask them to come back.

“The nice thing now for me is I don’t have to worry about the content or the presentation,” he continued. “I just have to generate buzz and noise so people will check us out. Because I think the content is solid, the teams generally work well together and like one another. It is nice to manage a station where people don’t have to fake they like each other at 5, 6 and 11.”

The morning program has made some gains, but it remains deep in third place despite the expensive addition of meteorologist Andy Parker and the placement of yet another morning team in Katie Morse and Ed Drantch.

“Admittedly the morning is a long haul,” said Nurse. “We’re very pleased with the show itself. The team has great chemistry and energy it is just a matter of trying to make noise and stand out in the marketplace.”

The decision to replace anchor Joanna Pasceri with Ashley Rowe as the station’s primary female anchor alongside male anchors Jeff Russo and Keith Radford was made to make some noise. The results at 6 and 11, when Rowe co-anchors, indicate it has worked so far.

“She’s been a breath of fresh air,” Nurse said of Rowe. “In the newsroom, she and Keith and Jeff all get along amazingly well. We’re very, very pleased. The feedback (from viewers) in general has been very, very positive.”

That wasn’t initially the case. When Pasceri was abruptly ousted, there was a fan backlash. Nurse concedes the situation could have been handled better.

“I regret how the Joanna situation played out for her and the station,” said Nurse. “But the impact in terms of ratings and market backlash was very limited. We just felt we needed to make a change and bring a fresh element to the table. Honesty, when you’re No. 3 repeating the same thing and expecting different results, is not a formula for success.”

Speaking of formulas, Nielsen now has a new one to measure demographics – but not household ratings – that has local general managers shaking their heads.

Buffalo’s demographics are now determined by comparing them to six similar Eastern cities – Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore – even if the stations in those markets carry different programs in time periods.

“It is the most confusing, discombobulated system I have ever seen,” said Nurse. “Admittedly, the old diary system wasn’t very good. I think Nielsen is going to have to do something more credible or you’re going to have more push back in the advertising community.”

Nielsen changes generally damage first-place stations and can help lower-rated stations like Channel 7. But the bigger cities that Buffalo is being compared to make little sense.

“Buffalo is a unique market,” said Nurse. “The upside here is people watch TV in this market and they read the newspaper. This area consumes the media.”

As a rule, the area also is known for resisting too much change. Nurse said the station has asked Radford to extend his contract by a year to run through 2017.

“That was his request,” said Nurse of the short term. “He wants to see how it goes. I will give Keith credit. And this is not just fluff for the newspaper. He been a positive force in the newsroom, he’s out covering stories, he’s helping coach Jeff and Ashley. He’s been amazing.”

One negative that Nurse said may be addressed in the fall is the absence of news on weekend mornings, unlike Channel 7’s rivals. A plan to start those newscasts last spring was delayed.

“It puts us at a disadvantage right now because you are asking people to go away for a third of the week and come back on Monday morning,” said Nurse.

One thing that soon will be returning to Channel 7 is an investigative reporter. Nurse said the plan is to add one.

For those viewers who remember John Pauly, Lee Coppola and other Channel 7 investigative reporters in its glory days, that is a reason to celebrate.