For years the low-flying WKRN-Channel 2 has employed a very simple strategy: Put on a fresh but straightforward newscast, gain a reputation for intense weather coverage, and attract viewers who are either new to Nashville or willing to stray from Channels 4 and 5.
Considering its two main competitors, that has not always been an easy task. WSMV-Channel 4 probably has the two most popular anchors in town in Demetria Kalodimos and Dan Miller. Add to that a talented staff of reporters and a tradition of TV journalism unmatched by any of its rivals, and you have a ratings juggernaut. WTVF-Channel 5 is nearly as formidable. Like Channel 4, Channel 5 boasts a reliable blend of household names in Chris Clark and Larry Brinton, mixed in smoothly with a few top-shelf investigative reporters.
But while Channels 4 and 5 have been locked in a tight and often ugly battle for ratings supremacy, Channel 2 has, much like a savvy race car driver hovering quietly in third place, shown signs that it can steal the show. During this past May’s sweeps, when both 4 and 5 set new lows for sensational, if not outright sleazy, reporting, Channel 2 managed to boost its ratings for nearly every newscast, including a 37-percent jump for the last hour of its popular morning show and a 28-percent increase for its 6 p.m. newscast. And while demographics are a little harder to nail down, the station reports that its numbers in the all-important 25-54 age group nearly match channels 4 and 5.
“Our hustle is finally starting to pay off,” says reporter Jay Korff, who has been at Channel 2 for nearly six years. “The core group of us who have been around a while have been frustrated being number three. We know we are as good as the competition. The hard part has been convincing the public of that.”
So why is Channel 2 just now starting to make strides? Matthew Zelkind, the station’s rather excitable news director, offers a rather blunt explanation. “We are fiercely efficient at attracting key demographics,” he says. Then contemplating his rather exclusionary remark, he adds, “We are targeting a specific demographic, but we’re not forgetting anyone.”
Make no mistake, however, Channel 2 wants the new Nashvillethe young, media-savvy viewers who are turned off by chaotic sweeps segments and ready to reach for their remote controls. During the May sweeps, while channels 4 and 5 both did stories on prostitutes who cater to truck drivers, along with countless other mindless exposés, Channel 2 set itself apart by doing good, relevant reporting. In fact, the closest Channel 2 came to sweeps fare was a sensational but strong story by reporter Dan MacDonald disclosing that many of the people listed on the state’s sex-offender registry don’t actually live at their stated address. Despite overly dramatic passages, the story had legitimate news value in that it exposed a much-hyped state program for not achieving its purpose.
Of course, Channel 2’s competitors list other, more circumstantial reasons behind the station’s recent emergence. “The market is becoming more competitive, but Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is a good part of their success,” says Frank Detillio, general manager for Channel 4. “Millionaire has affected their ratings because it gives them an opportunity to promote to viewers who normally wouldn’t watch them.”
And when the popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire does, in fact, wane, Channel 2 will have its share of holes to fill. Because the station doesn’t have a reporter assigned solely to the investigative beat, the station rarely comes out with the kinds of widely talked-about scoops that 4 and 5 regularly generate. And sometimes when a major story breaks, like last fall’s wild assortment of police scandals, Channel 2 seems unwilling or unable to advance the story.
But these journalistic deficiencies aren’t so difficult to fix. Perhaps more importantly, the station seems to have the right mix of marketable personalities, smart news judgment, and a prevailing attitude that it can win over today’s viewers without clubbing them over the head with tawdry news stories.
“Viewers as a whole are becoming smarter and they expect more,” says Jason Heath, the station’s assistant news director. “During sweeps we did not resort to anything we were not proud of.”
Instrumental in the station’s resurgence has been News 2 This Morning, gracefully headlined by the youthful anchor team of Neil Orne and Victoria Hansen. A few years ago, the number of people who watched the show could probably cram into a Manhattan studio apartment. Now the show is beating Channel 4’s morning program and is locked in a dead heat with Channel 5’s among adults 25-54.
More importantly, however, is that like a good lead-off hitter, Channel 2’s lively morning show sets the tone for the rest of the day. And in contrast to the headline news format preferred by Channel 5 and the painfully folksy style of Channel 4, Channel 2 is the only station that seems to realize that a healthy mix of anchor banter and straightforward reporting is a good formula for early risers.
“This isn’t a 5, 6, or 10 o’clock newscast where everything is heavily scripted,” says Hansen.
“In the morning, people are just looking for reasons to get out of bed, and we just look for ways to inject a little fun,” Orne adds. “It’s the same thing radio has been doing for years.”
Of course, Orne and Hansen can sometimes share a little too much information with their viewers. For example, when Hansen blabbed on endlessly about her sinus surgery, that’s about the time some viewers might have switched to Channel 5. But despite the pair’s occasional tendency for self-indulgent chatter, they perfectly illustrate the station’s strategy of going after younger viewers without excluding everyone else.
“I guess management, by picking us, was going for a certain age group, but I get a ton of e-mails from people in their 60s and 70s who listen to the show,” Orne says. “As far as I can tell, we target everyone, at least everyone that can put up with us.”
Yet another distinguishing factor for Channel 2 has been its aggressive, if occasionally overblown, coverage of the weather. Channel 2 began to come of age during the April 1998 tornado. It was an event that was to Channel 2 what the Gulf War was to CNN. StormTracker 2000 became a household name, and in the process, many viewers who had never before watched the station suddenly caught on to Channel 2. Since then the station has sometimes treated a light drizzle as if it were The Perfect Storm, but when bad weather really does strike, Channel 2 typically outperforms channels 4 and 5. Channel 2’s hyper-serious reports are usually more specific, more comprehensible, and lastly, just more fun.
“We really changed the culture of weather coverage in this market,” Zelkind brags. “We were the first to really blow it out.”
It’s probably too early to tell whether Channel 2’s upswing is a brief streak or a trend that will lead the station to the top of the ratings heap. But right now, while channels 4 and 5 are actually losing viewers for their evening newscasts, Channel 2 is reeling them in.
“It’s a great time to be at Channel 2,” says longtime anchor Bob Mueller. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I’ve seen us have some windows of opportunity before and not take advantage of them. Now we have a chance again and we’re committed to taking advantage of it.”
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