- Walter Novak
- Jane Campbell's Public Enemy Number One.
On the day Ohio picks its favorite Democratic presidential candidate, the news seems obvious. Or at least it does to three Cleveland TV stations.
But there are four screens in the office of WEWS General Manager Ric Harris. "Look!" he says, jumping from his chair to point one by one to the monitors showing WKYC, WEWS, and WJW. "Election. Election. Election." Then he points at the screen showing WOIO's newscast, where the lead story -- for the fifth day in a row -- is Mayor Campbell's refusal to grant the station interviews. "Is today Super Tuesday?" asks Harris. "I don't know if I'm watching 19."
By now everyone knows Channel 19 is a renegade, and that edgy street cred -- not elections -- is its chief concern. It's the station nobody -- not the mayor, not its competitors -- wants you to watch. Which, of course, is why you tune in. That's how they get you.
While Channel 5's Ted Henry may be your favorite uncle, and 3's Tim White can be your avuncular neighbor, David Wittman and Sharon Reed, anchors on 19, are all about seduction. They grab your attention for one night, even if you feel a little ashamed in the morning.
Judging by the February ratings, Cleveland is having a fling with Action 19. The station, long a fixture in the basement, has surged to second place in that most hotly contested time slot, 11 p.m. To the minds behind 19 news, it's vindication. To the rest of the industry, it's viewed as a sleazy, short-term affair -- one bound to end badly. WEWS has even complained to politicians about 19 and is asking that the station's broadcast license be challenged for, among other things, showing an unedited clip of Janet Jackson exposing her breast at the Super Bowl.
Pulling the strings at Channel 19 is Bill Applegate, who earned his reputation in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago for flashy, fast, emotionally intense newscasts. The spectacle lured viewers and inspired copycats from coast to coast.
Cleveland seems a crucial stage in Applegate's resurrection. His tumble from grace came in 1994, when network executives deemed him too much of a maverick for his own good, and an ownership change pushed him out of KCBS in Los Angeles. His free fall landed him in Syracuse. After a few years he moved to Memphis, then Cleveland. Now, Applegate has the chance to prove either that once again, he's major-market worthy, or that the TV biz has passed him by.
Yet the recent ratings climb probably has more to do with News Director Steve Doerr, hired a year ago. He too arrived with baggage, having been the senior vice president at NBC until March 2002, when his own brash style led to clashes with superiors, according to industry sources. Doerr says that talk of fights is "a complete and utter exaggeration" and that he left voluntarily. Still, an ignominious past seems the common denominator at 19.
Reed was fired from a Philadelphia station after allegedly threatening a rival news diva on the internet. "You ever had a street fight, bitch?" she supposedly asked on a message board, for which she earned the "Most Bizarre Moment in Philly TV News" award from a local magazine.
Then there's Chuck Galeti, the sportscaster whose second DUI cost him a job at WKYC and whose third in August cost him a talk show at WTAM radio. By January, he was scooped up by 19.
"These guys are like the Oakland Raiders of TV," says Fox 8 spokesman Kevin Salyer. "They used to be big hitters, but they've fallen from grace, and now they're slashing and burning their way through Cleveland."
Though Applegate declined comment, Doerr says the new regime is about rebirth, not rehab. "You have people here who for years have toiled under the impression that this is a garbage can of a television station," he says. "All of a sudden, it's a whole new ball game."
And the new game plan, it seems, is to shake down the establishment. When venerable Fox weatherman Dick Goddard was pummeled by his wife in a domestic dispute, 19 was at Goddard's door for a surprise interview that drew furious reaction from viewers. Last month, Action News Meteorologist Jeff Tanchak declared a "weather challenge," whereby viewers could compare his temperature predictions with those of a competing weatherman. "I'm callin' you out," he would shout to vets like Goddard or Mark Johnson of Channel 5, then gloat the next day if he'd won.
Of course, the most infamous showdown was between 19 and the mayor. Reporter Tom Meyer staked out the Campbell children, who are chauffeured around town by Cleveland cops, for a story on police-overtime abuse. The video blurred the kids' faces, but nonetheless alarmed the mayor, who accused the station of stalking and threatening her family.
Action News has also generated buzz for both the salacious and the strange. "Tattoo Gypsy" was supposedly a biker who offered a populist-if-profane commentary on current events, before the bit ran out of gas. On February 29, the last night of sweeps, 19 aired a story on department stores that allegedly sold worn underwear as new. It offered an excuse to air footage of a Victoria's Secret runway show and closeups of silk panties.
"Professionally, they're an embarrassment to the industry," says WJW's Salyer. "But when you have no ratings and you have been that way for 10 years, I guess you have to do something."
Yet 19 sees itself as parting company with the drones. "If you beamed in from another planet and watched channels 3, 5, and 8, I think people would say, 'I'm not sure which is which,'" says Doerr. "They're basically indistinguishable. But if you watch us -- love it or hate it -- you know you're watching something very different."
The station seems to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, truth versus bullshit. "Do we have to be balanced?" asks Doerr. "I guess we do. But there's some times where there is no need for balance. If the story is so clear, I don't want people to be afraid to have an opinion."
He compares his newscast to a football team. "We're a high-scoring offense, and we take chances."
But the extent to which 19 has succeeded on its own merit is debatable. The station is helped immensely by its affiliation with CBS, the most watched of the major networks. It run promotions during such ratings magnets as CSI and Survivor. Take away those lead-in programs -- as with the morning, noon, and early evening broadcasts -- and 19 falls to a distant fourth.
Of course, ratings can be manipulated according to a spinmeister's preference. WKYC might boast that it's the ratings leader, but it loses more viewers from its prime-time lead-ins than any other station. WJW-8 finished a disappointing third in overall late night, but it claims to offer an attractive demographic to advertisers -- women ages 18 to 45. And while WEWS is last at 11 p.m., its ranking seems to be more a reflection of its awful ABC network lead-ins. The station is the best at increasing viewership from prime time into late news.
Still, the most valuable commodities in TV news aren't measurable. Each station wants personalities who are well liked and trusted. These are the building blocks of a newscast. Yet 19 has churned through a blizzard of reporters and anchors, making it harder for viewers to build a lasting rapport and thus making their newscast the most dubious franchise.
"They're like the nerdy kid in high school who never got any attention," says Salyer. "All of a sudden he gets a mohawk and a couple of piercings and tattoos, and a few people look at him. But the bottom line is, he's still a loser."
WEWS's Harris is a bit more charitable: "It's my belief that this strategy will bear fruit in the short term, but it won't last in the long haul." While Clevelanders may be showing morbid curiosity, he believes they also possess "a filter that allows them to identify the difference between a newscast with integrity and one that is purely self-serving."
Adds Salyer: "It's revolved once, but it's not a revolution."