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A WKBW suggestion led to move of Variety Club Telethon to WGRZ

Alan Pergament

I initially felt a little sorry for WKBW-TV when the move of the Variety Club Telethon to WGRZ and WBBZ was announced last week.

WKBW (Channel 7) is taking another blow to its image in losing a community event it has carried for more than half a century.

The ABC affiliate used the telethon to raise money for a worthy cause, while at the same time benefiting from the positive exposure it gave its personalities.

To its credit, when you say Variety Club Telethon, you think Channel 7.

My sympathy for Channel 7 diminished somewhat after talking with local defense attorney Paul J. Cambria, the vice president of Variety Club and member of the board who negotiated the move.

It was hard to fault Cambria for thinking you should change things up every 50 years or so. That was even before he explained the process that led to the move.

He initially talked with former WKBW General Manager Michael Nurse before Nurse was fired. Cambria didn’t like Nurse’s suggestions about changing the telethon, saying, “We know what we’re doing.”

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At one point during the negotiations, Cambria said Nurse suggested, “Why don’t you see if any other stations want it?”

“I don’t think he meant it,” Cambria added.

Cambria said he followed that with a discussion with WKBW interim GM Mike Barbetta and unsuccessfully played phone tag with the recently hired GM Marc Jaromin.

Cambria also approached WGRZ GM Jim Toellner about making a move that included five hours of prime time on Saturday night on the No.1 station in town.

“That was huge,” Cambria said.

He said he was close to a deal with Channel 2 when Channel 7 creative services director Sue Dobmeier told him the station would be raising the price for carrying the telethon “by $9,000 or $10,000.”

The compensation for air time varies by telethon. According to a source, Channel 7 was given a fee for the costs associated with producing the telethon that it partially returns as a donation.

“We hadn’t included that in our budget,” Cambria said of the increase. “We are a charity.”

He added the extra money wasn’t the deciding factor, but it was a factor in making the move. “There was no reason for it,” Cambria said of the increase.

“Because of Nurse, we started to look elsewhere and the additional cost, even though we had assumed most of the production, was an additional factor that caused us to move,” Cambria wrote in an email. “Before that we had the full cooperation and support of Channel 7 and were very happy there. And regularly were able to have 12 hours to do our telethon.

“It is as much of the Buffalo fabric as beef on weck and chicken wings and has resulted in millions of dollars going to the care and treatment of our kids. It’s a labor of love by us the volunteers and the community and now with this unbelievably, great (children's) hospital more than ever we want to raise as much as we can.”

He said Variety Club is paying Channel 2 less than what Channel 7 wanted.

“We appreciated our 57 years at Channel 7, but this was an opportunity for us to take this to a new level,” Cambria said when the move was announced.

WGRZ will air the telethon from 6 to 11 p.m. Feb. 29, with WBBZ airing it from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. March 1. That’s an expansion from last year when WKBW carried the telethon from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

The move comes with some risks and potential rewards.

The risk for the Variety Club is that viewers who were used to watching the telethon on WKBW will forget it has moved and miss it unless there is extensive promotion. Another risk is expecting too much.

While prime-time exposure is nice to get, Saturday night is the lowest viewing night of the week on network television. It generally is so low that broadcast networks primarily program repeats and sports programming.

However, Cambria correctly noted that even low Saturday night ratings are often better than ratings on Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon.

WGRZ hopes to kick-start the telethon from the Seneca Niagara Event Center in Niagara Falls with a short local 6 p.m. Saturday newscast as a lead-in. Cambria also hopes that co-anchors Scott Levin and Maryalice Demler and other station personalities on the No. 1 news station will attract more viewers than the lesser known WKBW personalities on the third-rated station in town.

The telethon benefited when WKBW was No. 1, but that almost seems like an eternity ago.

While getting a second station involved to showcase volunteers is a bonus, WBBZ is an independent station with low ratings and it occasionally has worrisome technical issues. That makes it a risk for a live event.

A planned Halloween night presentation of “WKBW’s War of the Worlds, The Legacy Continues” never made it on the air because of technical issues. It is scheduled to air at 10 p.m. Sunday.

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However, the viewers WBBZ gets generally are older and more likely to watch telethons. That’s a potential plus.

The long-term viability of telethons has been the subject of considerable debate because of changing viewership habits. As an older market, Buffalo may be able to stem the tide longer than other markets.

Jaromin, WKBW’s new general manager, hadn’t arrived when Cambria negotiated the move. One of his early missions is community involvement, so this announcement so quickly after he arrived had to sting.

“For 57 years, WKBW has been a proud partner of The Variety Club,” wrote Jaromin in an email. “I see that partnership evolving. Unfortunately, I have not yet had an opportunity to sit with (Variety Club director) Richard Goldstein and Paul Cambria to explore how we continue to support one of our legacy community organizations. I look forward to reimagining our partnership and supporting the Variety Club in new and creative ways for years to come.”

Phil Beuth, the general manager during WKBW’s glory years under Capital Cities Broadcasting, welcomed the news the telethon is continuing.

Beuth forwarded an email he sent Goldstein to John DiSciullo, the longtime producer of the telethon who now works at WBBZ and will continue producing it.

“I am happy to hear about the continuance because of a couple of things,” Beuth wrote. “First, another continued effort to change kids’ lives. Second, it is evidence of the work you and John and so many Variety folks have done throughout many of their lifetimes. Thirdly, and I hope someone recognizes this ... thousands of man hours and millions of dollars have been invested over the many years by Channel 7, especially by Capital Cities! That effort should not go unrecognized. ... I expect Alan P will not miss that.”

Consider it recognized.

Now let’s hope telethon viewers recognize the move to Channel 2 and consider it a good thing.

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