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Alan Pergament: It doesn't look like WKBW's owner still believes in Buffalo turnaround

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Andy Parker's departure from WKBW is the latest sign that owner E.W. Scripps, is no longer dedicated to turning the station around.

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When meteorologist Andy Parker left the first-place WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) morning program “Daybreak” to join rival WKBW-TV (Channel 7) in 2014, it appeared to be an indication of how committed new owner E.W. Scripps was about competing with WGRZ and WIVB-TV (Channel 4) and climbing out of the ratings basement.

Parker’s recent departure from WKBW amid speculation that he may return to WGRZ is the latest indication that the station that runs a feature called “Believe in Buffalo” has an owner who no longer believes it can bring the station back to its former glory.

It was a bit of a gamble for Parker to leave Channel 2 in 2014 because he was in position to eventually replace Kevin O’Connell as the NBC affiliate’s top weathercaster. According to sources, his deal may have had some ratings incentives that would have increased his salary.

“Being in weather, you are always looking ahead,” Parker said at the time. “And when you are doing these contracts, you have to look down the road and forecast where TV will be in three, four, five years. … It was my feeling that the landscape was going to look significantly different a few years down the road. When you ask yourself which station might be in the position to make the largest gains, I think you are looking at Channel 7.”

Parker’s forecast about a station where he previously worked and was eager to return to turned out to be wrong. Very wrong.

“It took a long time to break that baby down,” Parker said of Channel 7’s demise. “But it is going to be a lot shorter ride to build it back up.”

I’m sure that was Scripps’ hope.

But eight years later, the news department remains deep in third place. It is doubtful that Parker received any of the ratings incentives if he had them.

The recent February sweeps once again showed how deep a hole the station is in. Most of its newscasts had ratings in the 2s, which is very low compared with the ratings for its rivals.

Back in 2014, Scripps also supposedly had plans to start an early morning weekend news program, which many view as essential for stations to show their commitment to being a full-service news department and help compete on weekdays. WKBW remains the only station among the big three not to have an early morning weekend news program.

Perhaps being deep in third place in news ratings is the reason the station kicks off its newscasts by telling viewers it is “streaming live” and the staff is being told about the importance of online impressions over ratings. I don’t know how that goes over with advertisers being wooed by what I am told is a short-staffed Channel 7 sales department.

In slightly more than a year, it also has lost much of the high-profile talent. Veteran anchor Keith Radford retired. Award-winning investigative reporter Charlie Specht returned to The Buffalo News. Controversial and attention-getting anchor-reporter Madison Carter left before her contract expired and eventually landed at an Atlanta TV station. Highly respected veteran reporter Ed Reilly retired. Jeff Slawson left to work in Cleveland.

I suppose that can be viewed as in keeping with the old sports slogan when a losing team cuts its higher priced stars: We lose with them, and we can lose without them.

The station now primarily relies on recent Syracuse University graduates as reporters as part of a special Scripps arrangement with the communications department to cultivate talent. Once local viewers get to know the names of the Syracuse graduates, they often are gone to Scripps stations in bigger markets than Buffalo, which is outside the Top 50.

The arrangement is good for Scripps, but not for WKBW in a market in which viewers prefer continuity.

The station also has the smallest reporting staff in town, partly because it has the fewest newscasts.

Of the nine staffers who are exclusively full-time reporters, five are recent Syracuse graduates (one of whom is on leave after being hit by a car while working) and one is a recent St. Bonaventure graduate.

The veteran reporters are Eileen Buckley, a relatively new TV reporter after decades working in radio, Jeff Rusack and newcomer Michael Schwartz.

Rusack also anchors on one weekend day. The other weekend day frequently is anchored by Lia Lando, a freelancer.

Needless to say, on some weekend nights the newscasts look like those carried on a college station.

The two noteworthy innovations WKBW has made are premiering a 7 p.m. newscast a year ago anchored by Hannah Buehler and expanding the noon newscast to an hour. The 7 p.m. newscast is a good and smart alternative to the syndicated programs on WGRZ and WIVB. It held up well in February against the new hourlong newscast on Channel 4’s sister station WNLO-TV.

There hardly is a need for an hour newscast at noon most days, since not much news generally happens before then. The newscast is often filled with national features.

The WKBW sports department also has the least number of on-air staffers, but it is led by sports director Matt Bove, a natural on TV. Full disclosure: He is a former student of mine at Buffalo State College.

Channel 7’s website continues to have part-timer Mike Randall on its weather team even though he hasn’t done weather in about two years.

For the manpower and womanpower it has, the Channel 7 newscasts anchored by Jeff Russo, Ashley Rowe and Buehler do a reasonably good job. Russo and Rowe are a strong anchor team and have done more reporting since Buehler took over as the 11 p.m. anchor.

But there is no way they can compete with WGRZ and WIVB. In addition to the smaller staffs, Russo and Rowe are in the unfortunate position of competing with veterans Don Postles and Jacquie Walker at WIVB and Maryalice Demler and Scott Levin at WGRZ in a market that is extremely slow to change.

Perhaps Scripps has come to the conclusion it can't compete with the two stronger news departments in town and is just trying to live off the retransmission fees it gets from cable and satellite providers to carry its station.

Whatever the reason, all the excitement inside WKBW when Scripps bought the station disappeared long before Andy Parker did.

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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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