nd the nominees for last year's “Most Bizarre Moment in Philly TV News” are:
Or perhaps the most bizarre moment is actually happening this January morning, inside Marc Howard's high-rise apartment off Washington Square in Center City. Howard, the longtime Channel 6 broadcaster who was lured to Channel 3 to replace Kane at 11 p.m., is talking about the deal that made him switch stations. He candidly-perhaps too candidly-explains that he was offered Channel 3's 6 p.m. newscast as well, but passed.
“Their six is in such a hole. I might as well stay home and read the news to the wall,” Howard says, referring to the abysmal ratings of Channel 3's early evening news. “So [take a second shift] just to be on TV?” He grins and pumps his fist back and forth, feigning self-pleasure. “I don't need that. This is not a hobby; this is my job. This is a business.”
When the lead anchor for a major local newscast simulates masturbation, you know something strange is going on. The past year has seen more high drama and bloodshed on the local TV battlefield-the country's fourth largest-than ever before. Major on-air personalities have switched stations. Others have left town. Still others have been hospitalized, sued station management, or had run-ins with the police. Meanwhile, the ratings race-dominated by Channel 6's Action News since the mid-'70s-is suddenly a real contest, with Channels 6 and 10 battling each other for supremacy each night, and Channel 3, alone in the basement, spending millions to try and crawl out.
Is all this action in the space of a year just a coincidence? Maybe. But it's also a sign of the enormous pressure each station is under-and of the stakes they're playing for. Local news can account for more than half of a station's revenue, and a single ratings point can translate into nearly a million dollars in ads annually, especially at 11 o'clock-the money show that sales managers salivate over and whose stars have the equivalent of above-the-title Hollywood billing. But in just the past seven years, hundreds of thousands of people have stopped watching local news in this town. And as the 10 o'clock newscasts siphon viewers (see the sidebar below) and more forms of media than ever take pieces of the pie, the Big Three are fighting to retain audiences and please their corporate masters while also trying to serve the public good.
“It's a very difficult environment for these people,” says Wally Dean, of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a nonprofit media research team in Washington, D.C. “Frankly, there's a lot of confusion as to what they should do. Competition has gotten to the point of silliness. No longer is there the challenge of winning and doing a good job. The challenge is surviving.”
From a spectator's standpoint, this game of Survivor has been fun to watch. Philly has always treated its TV people like Hollywood celebrities, after all-and more than ever, they're acting that way. But on a deeper level, the chaos is unsettling. Buried somewhere beneath the crush of egos and Nielsens and bottom lines is the reason we're all supposed to be tuning in: the news.
The general manager of Channel 10 is perched before a wall of TV screens in his office overlooking City Line Avenue, and at the moment would rather talk about foot traffic than news. Just seconds into comparing his station's new remote setup at the Loews Hotel in Center City to Channel 3's streetside digs a few blocks away at 5th and Market, Dennis Bianchi rises to his feet.
“You know where their street is? At least as far as that tree,” Bianchi says, gesturing to a leafless trunk more than 50 feet away. His point-Channel 3 is not in touch with the viewers. Hell, they can't even see the viewers! Bianchi takes a couple of quick steps back. “We have the street right there!”
Not long ago, there wasn't much to be excited about at Bianchi's station. For 25 years, Channel 10 and Channel 3 were the also-rans in Philadelphia, perpetually finishing far behind ratings monster Channel 6. But everything began to change in 1995, with the corporate business deal that led to The Switch: That September, Channel 3 (then nbc) and Channel 10 (then cbs) swapped networks, literally overnight. As the cbs eye morphed into the nbc peacock, Channel 10 anchor Renee Chenault offered a soothing reminder to a notoriously stubborn audience: “The most important thing to remember-change is good.” Obviously, not everyone agreed. Thousands of calls poured in from confused viewers-including then-mayor Ed Rendell.
With a healthy roster of nbc programming, Channel 10 wasted no time plastering billboards with its new logo and re-branding itself as “nbc 10.” Channel 3, by contrast, did little advertising, relying on its call letters (kyw) and the “Eyewitness News” moniker to retain viewers. That strategy failed. In the next several years, the station endured unprecedented turnover as management and on-air staff shuffled annually. Channel 3 lost its identity, and Channel 10 began moving ahead.
Channel 10 gained more momentum with the arrival in 1998 of news V.P. Steve Schwaid. “The tornado known as Schwaid,” Bianchi says. “I'm lucky he was here. He's a piece of work.”
Before landing in Philadelphia, Schwaid, now 48, had built a reputation for sweeping through newsrooms from Tampa to Hartford with the destructive force of the storms he loves to hype, and getting results in the process. Though he looked bookish in his suspenders and glasses, Schwaid made it clear that things were going to be done his way, with an emphasis on splashy graphics, breaking news, and weather.
Most news directors fall into one of two categories: people persons who are sensitive to personnel issues and can carry on a conversation; and field generals who set aside the common courtesies most humans extend to each other and focus on nothing but the news and the numbers. Even his fans, Bianchi included, know which category Schwaid falls into. “Does Steve have some 'development areas,' as we like to say in human resources? Absolutely,” says Bianchi. “But we all do.”
Not long after he arrived, Schwaid-whose intense personality was symbolized by a sign in his office that said just go!-installed blue lights around the Channel 10 newsroom. When news broke, it was price-slash time at Kmart: Reporters had three minutes to be at their posts or face his wrath. “It was like we were under attack,” says a former employee. In a staff meeting, Schwaid announced, “If I had an Uzi right now, I'd take all of you out with no remorse.” On another occasion, he walked into the newsroom and asked, “Who are the writers here?” When arms went up, Schwaid bellowed: “Our writing sucks!”
“He wasn't kind, but he was fair,” says Channel 10 producer Lydia Reeves. “Some people's feelings got hurt. Well, a lot of people got hurt. But I respect him.”
The reason for that respect is simple: Under Schwaid, Channel 10 did what no Philadelphia station had done for a quarter-century: In February 2001, it beat Channel 6's Action News in the ratings at 11 p.m. Yes, it was only by six-tenths of a ratings point-fewer than 2,000 homes-and yes, Channel 10 lost the next sweeps period by the same margin. But ever since, the two stations have been in a closely fought war, twice finishing in a “statistical tie” in the ratings. Schwaid captivated audiences with breaking news banners, ominous background music, and severe weather overhype in a region that already scrambles for milk and shovels every time an inch of snow falls. “You have to go a bit over-the-top,” says Bianchi of Schwaid's dramatic flair. “But the same people who say we hype weather too much-guess who they're going to watch? Us.”
Though Schwaid promoted Channel 10's “EarthWatch” team relentlessly, the person he clashed with most often (and most publicly) was lead weatherhunk John Bolaris. Long a fixture in local gossip columns, Bolaris still considered himself a serious weatherman, and bristled at Schwaid's carnival-barker approach to the skies above. The conflict between them peaked in March 2001, when a large snowstorm appeared to be heading for Philadelphia. Channel 10 talked about the storm for days, and at one point ran a “crawl” across the bottom of the screen dubbing it the storm of the century. It turned out to be the Scam of the Century, as Philly got less than an inch of snow. “I never wanted to be a used-car salesman with the weather,” says Bolaris. “[At first] I honestly believed it was a big storm. I didn't have final say over the crawl. I got hung out to dry over that.”
Schwaid's reign at Channel 10 ended in late 2001, when he was promoted to an nbc network job. His replacement was assistant news director Chris Blackman, a friendly, personable, low-key manager who is, by all accounts, the anti-Schwaid. “Chris is the way you'd want your kids to be when they grow up,” Bianchi says.
But being a nice guy hasn't made Blackman immune to trouble. His first crisis arose just weeks into the job, when messages for Channel 10 reporter Alicia Taylor began popping up on media websites, with language ranging from racist (using “nigga” and “watermelon butt”) to threatening (“I can't wait to … put my foot up your skank ass.” Police linked the postings to the computer of Sharon Reed, a Channel 10 anchor with a reputation in the newsroom for volatile behavior. Reed, through her lawyer, said the postings were written by others, but she took responsibility for them and left the station in March. No charges were filed. A producer for Cleveland's woio, which hired her two months later, said in an interview, “She fessed up to her involvement. She said she got caught up in the emotion at the time.” Reed, Taylor and nbc-10 decline to comment further.
Trouble continued to spread in the newsroom. By last fall, rumors swirled that Bolaris was showing up late for work and seemed disinterested. “I lost some of my fire,” he admits, pointing to a combination of post-9/11 blues and post-Schwaid shell shock. “When I lose my passion, I'm not giving it my all.” Both sides say Bolaris approached management with a request to return home to New York. Station higher-ups were apparently willing to risk a ratings loss in order to cut loose their malcontent publicity magnet. The bleeding continued when Kathy Orr was asked to take over as the top weathercaster, but was offered a less-than-pleasing sum to do so. Channel 3 lured her away, leaving Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz to fill Bolaris's shoes.
Channel 10 still managed to turn the loss of half its weather team into another hype-fest. In November, Bolaris was treated to a goodbye on his last night that ate up nearly half the 11 o'clock newscast. Before the show, he wept in the bathroom and tried to collect himself. On the air, it was an even uglier scene. Viewers read letters expressing their love of all things Bolaris: “You have changed my life regarding weather,” began one Dear John missive. And in the most uncomfortable TV moment this side of the Anna Nicole Smith show, Bolaris met with his fans live in the studio. (“I felt awkward,” Bolaris admits. “I swear I didn't want all that stuff, but it was nice of the station.”)
The Bolaris bon voyage aired on the last night of November sweeps, helping Channel 10 win the night by a landslide and forcing a virtual tie with Channel 6. “Sure, it was a bit much,” says Blackman. “But it was a time to have fun. It resonated with people.” People who didn't care what the news was that day.
Despite the recent bumps, Channel 10 remains strong. Schwaid, who still lives in Philadelphia with his family, compares Channel 6 to an alcoholic who's unable to admit he has a problem. “It's like the 12 steps of denial,” he says. “They're around step five, and slowly, reality will set in.” In the same breath in which Schwaid wishes Bolaris best of luck in his new job with cbs in New York, he can't resist a parting shot: “Hurricane Schwartz has stepped in seamlessly,” he says. “Bolaris left town? Nobody cares.”
Back in Bianchi's office, Schwaid's old boss talks about the competition, which sounds plural until he points to Channel 6's building across the street. “It's a two-horse race,” he says. As for Channel 3's aggressive push, he smiles: “Bring it on.”
At Channel 3, a lot of people should be sending flowers to David Letterman. When abc made its much-publicized play for The Late Show star early last year, cbs president Les Moonves pledged to bolster Letterman's show by strengthening both the network's prime-time programming and the local news that follows. (Bigger lead-in audiences would theoretically lead to bigger ratings.) Letterman agreed to stay at cbs, and the network turned its focus to needy markets, including Philadelphia.
Picked to lead the rebuilding here and elsewhere was Dennis Swanson, a 65-year-old TV veteran whose past successes include launching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Most recently, Swanson was general manager of wnbc in New York, which he made into the nation's most profitable station. Despite the success, Swanson was passed over for a promotion, and in July he announced his “retirement.” It didn't last long. Three days later, he was named executive vice president and coo of the television stations group of Viacom, which owns nbc rival cbs. It was the beginning of “Swanson's Revenge,” as one Channel 10 staffer calls it, and in the next several months, the former Marine stocked cbs-owned stations across the country with his loyalists from other networks, including a sales exec from wnbc-Peter Dunn, Channel 3's current GM.
Swanson has pledged he won't rest until every station under his authority is number one. In turn, Viacom has given him millions to pump into Philadelphia alone, and Channel 3 has been borrowing heavily from Channel 10's blueprint for success. Buses and billboards promote the remodeled news team. “kyw” has been dropped in favor of “cbs 3,” a long-overdue move. This month, they're adding a million-dollar Doppler weather system. No blue sirens yet, but everything else is late-'90s Channel 10.
Funny, then, that with the addition of Marc Howard-the first major anchor defection from Channel 6 since the station grabbed the ratings crown in 1976-it initially seemed the station was trying to clone Action News, which observers agree would be a mistake. If viewers were loyal to Howard in his old 5 p.m. anchor seat at Channel 6, chances are they're in the Jim Gardner fan club at 11 p.m., and no one sees Gardner's popularity slipping. Dunn says copying Channel 6 is the last thing he intends; instead, he points to Howard's credibility and repeats that this is a long-term plan. Perhaps it's more personal than that. One Channel 3 employee says of Swanson, “As much as he wants to win, he wants the other guy to lose.” In other top 10 markets, including New York, San Francisco and Chicago, Swanson assaulted competing networks by recruiting their staffs. Here, he not only wooed Orr, but gave Bolaris an escape route to wcbs in Manhattan. (Bolaris insists he didn't speak with Swanson until after he and Channel 10 agreed to part ways.) It's addition by subtraction, which is the best explanation for bringing in a 65-year-old white guy to replace another white guy five years younger.
Enter the Fifth Beatle. Larry Kane spent a few heady months covering the Fab Four in the 1960s, then went on to anchor at all three network stations in Philly before retiring in January. Over the course of an hour-long huddle at the Palm restaurant days after Marc Howard's Channel 3 debut-and weeks before accepting a consulting job with cn8-Kane absentmindedly rubs the collar of his wool sport coat and emphasizes that he's not bitter. “I'm not bitter,” he says. He says it again. And again.
Through his 35 years in local news, Kane has taken knocks for having a healthy ego and a stoic demeanor on and off-camera. (True story: When Kane and Bolaris worked together at Channel 10 in the early '90s, Turtleneck Boy playfully poked Kane in the nose after a comment about keeping extremities covered in the cold weather. After the show, Kane warned him, “John, you can't touch my nose. You've offended the Jewish community.” Bolaris replied, “I didn't even know you were Jewish!”) But he doesn't seem bitter so much as hurt, and a bit lost.
Kane explains how he found out about the Howard move through the press, how the station tried to convince him to stay on at 6 p.m., and how he agreed to announce his retirement during last November's sweeps. “Peter [Dunn] didn't make the decision,” Kane says, referring to powers on high. As for Swanson, Kane won't talk. Maybe he truly wishes his old Channel 3 team well. Maybe he's got nothing nice to say about Swanson. It's probably both. What's certain is that this isn't the way he wanted to go out.
While insiders debate the wisdom of hiring Howard, the only question about the station's move to secure Orr is how Channel 10 could have let her work without a no-compete clause, thus allowing her to join a rival without an extended hiatus. Most agree the 35-year-old has star quality, though some wonder if she'll realize that potential on the third-rated newscast. Dunn would be thrilled with a ratings increase of a point or two by year's end, and Swanson-who turned his Chicago station from worst to first in the 1980s-admits that with the money in place, the pressure is on. “They have to produce the bottom line,” he says. “The goal is to be number one there, but we have to get to second place first.”
Somewhere on a cobweb-cloaked bookshelf in every news director's office, it seems, there's a book of TV news rules, and in it is a line that reads: “Rule 1022: Cooperation with other forms of media should be in inverse relation to your station's rank in the ratings.” That's why, when it came to this story, the folks at Channel 3 stopped just short of offering cheese and merlot as they opened their doors. At Channel 10, the conversations were cordial, yet guarded at times-perhaps because the station's omnipresent flack hovered at every turn.
Then there's Channel 6. It's suspected that the author of Rule 1022 is none other than Dave Davis, Channel 6's general manager and former news director. The gravel-throated Davis, who's been at the station for 12 years, rarely speaks to the press, and instructs his employees to follow suit. Most obey orders, but those who break them admit these have been hectic days. “We haven't had this kind of movement in some time,” says veteran reporter Dann Cuellar. “It threw our situation into chaos.”
Despite the ratings turf war with Channel 10, last year was fairly smooth for Channel 6-at least until August, when word leaked that Howard was leaving. Management took him off the air immediately and treated him “like a heretic,” in Howard's words; a secretary later dropped his belongings off at his apartment. Two months later, longtime anchor Lisa Thomas-Laury gave in to an eight-month struggle with a nerve disorder causing numbness in her feet and legs. Juggling physical therapy with co-anchoring the 5 p.m. news landed her in the hospital, and she reluctantly agreed to take time off.
That left Davis and news director Carla Carpenter scrambling to fill major holes in their lineup. Morning anchors Monica Malpass and Rick Williams worked double shifts, from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later, for weeks at a time. In the House of Stability, uncertainty reigned. “It must have been a blow to management when they heard Marc was looking at kyw,” says Cuellar. “No one was expecting that. Compounded with Lisa's illness, it left a big hole.”
Michele McCormack, a reporter at Channel 6 for five years, says the shake-up has galvanized the staff to work harder. “Everyone's schedules have been shuffled,” she says, “but there's a sense of camaraderie. It sounds really hokey, but it's like a family. Now, the 'suits'-that's another story, but I've always had a problem with authority.”
Channel 6 management is, by all accounts, not a cuddly bunch. Davis is a straight-shooter, seldom seen but respected by his staff. Carpenter, referred to by one reporter as “emotionally volatile, like I am,” seems sculpted from the same gritty mold that has shaped the most successful, albeit often unpopular, news chiefs. “Some people have painted her as the wicked witch, but she is a great person,” says Cuellar. “Her heart, her passion, is news.”
For a long time, Carpenter's brand of news was just like Davis's when he ran Action News, and like his predecessors' as well. With a stranglehold on its competition, the station had no need to take risks. When it did dare to try something different, fanatical viewers lashed out. A new version of its news theme was recorded by members of the London Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras in 1996. It lasted four days. “People flipped out,” says one insider. “When we do change, we try to make it so gradual that you wouldn't realize it.”
Station reps deny a makeover, but evidence is everywhere. The logo has been streamlined. The set's cold blue background has been accented with subtle “Action News” logos, and after decades of presenting weather like a kid posting artwork on the fridge, Channel 6 tiptoed into the new millennium with computer graphics.
“When I came here in 1995, I questioned why we were still using magnets,” says storm-watcher Cecily Tynan. “I think they were thinking, 'If it ain't broke … ' They anticipated a big uproar, but there wasn't one. We used to write on The Cloud with a marker, and now we do it on the computer. We'll always have The Cloud.”
And it seems we'll have Tynan for almost as long. In September, the station announced that 66-year-old Dave Roberts-Gardner's longtime weather wingman at 11 o'clock-was stepping down to work the afternoon shift, making Tynan, 33, the first female forecaster on the marquee show in decades. “I was a little nervous at first,” Tynan says of her move from a.m. to evenings. “In the morning, it's a little looser. But working with Jim has been great. After the first week, he said, 'This seems to be working out well.' I said, 'Yeah, you don't intimidate me anymore.'” Tynan's popularity made her the obvious choice to succeed Roberts, but at least one Roberts acquaintance wonders if he made the switch willingly, as he claims. “I believe him,” the friend says, “but I'll never know if when he started talking about his new contract, if Davis said, 'Ever think of pulling back a little?'”
So why all the secrecy? Why deny change is happening? Any chance Davis will talk? Carpenter? The night custodian? In January, a Channel 6 source had a suggestion: “I think the only person who would talk to you no longer works here, and he's going to be on the 11 o'clock news tonight.”
With his decades-long gag order finally lifted, Marc Howard speaks like a veteran coach who's seen his share of victories and has nothing left to lose. He says his switch to Channel 3 was about the challenge, not money, and insists that rumors he'll do little more than read news at 11 o'clock for a reported $800,000 a year aren't true. When talk turns to his former station, Howard praises his former boss, Davis, for his work ethic and attention to detail, then offers a peek behind the curtain: “News guys like Davis are tougher managers to work for because they're always looking over your shoulder. There's also a bit of envy. Davis was a reporter. I don't know any other business where managers make less than the people who work for them. I once had a manager say to me, 'I would change jobs with you in a minute. You make more money than me. Everybody likes you.' And he's my boss! You think he's going to be nice? No! He lives to break my balls!”
The anchor is equally candid about his former station's reluctance to speak to the media. “They think everyone is out to get them,” he says. “Do a database search for Larry Kane's name, then punch in Jim, Lisa, Dave and Marc. I'll bet Kane's name comes up more times than the others combined. Yet he's never been anywhere near number one. There is zero correlation between publicity and viewership. [Channel 6] only views that stuff as an irritation.”
The first signs of whether Howard's defection hit the station where it hurts-in the ratings-will be seen this month, when February sweeps are tallied. But while the secrets of Channel 6 remain guarded, its changing face is on your television every night. Thomas-Laury plans to return this month, restoring some normalcy. But maybe there is something to Steve Schwaid's theory that as the station has been weaned off its 100-proof ratings, it suffers from withdrawal and denial. As one reporter said when asked about all the tumult of the past year, “This is a boring time, actually.”
When the last sweeps month of the year ends in November, the winner won't be a local station, or a talking head with a bloated new contract, or a corporate fat cat counting cash in his Manhattan office, or the megamedia conglomerate he works for. At least, not according to nearly everyone interviewed for this story. They say the real winner in this mess is you. The viewer. Competition forces everyone to work harder, they say. The technological playing field is level-everyone has a chopper, a souped-up weather-tracking system and snappy graphics. The news product is better than ever, they swear.
But therein lies the fundamental problem: The very phrase “news product” is a troublesome pairing. Profits have long been a necessary evil in the corporate-driven world of media, but in no other journalistic forum are the lines between dollars, reporting and entertainment so hazy. Print hacks don't know how many people read yesterday's column. And when it comes to gossip, TV news blows the rest of the media out of the shark-infested waters: Reporter says Anchor So-and-So from across town sent his station a tape in hopes of defecting. Weatherman A says Weatherman B isn't really a meteorologist. Anchorman swears he has no ego, then talks about his press clippings. In this town, the blow-dried babes and strong-jawed gents of TV news are second only to athletes in terms of star status, and it shows. In two of the three markets larger than ours-New York and L.A.-traditional celebrities regularly walk the same streets as the adoring public. To star-starved Philadelphians, John Bolaris became Tom Cruise, Cecily Tynan does Cameron Diaz, Jim Gardner is our De Niro. Their box-office receipts are counted in half-hour increments, every single night.
Separate the personalities from the product, and what's left is news. This is where the future seems bleakest for local TV. After 9/11, the cable news networks enjoyed a tremendous boost. Those numbers have leveled off, but with cable channels, the Internet, TiVo and longer workdays fighting for real estate in your day planner, local news is not appointment television anymore. Audience share is roughly half of what it was a decade ago, which translates to less profit, which means more pressure to perform, which in turn leads to much of the instability in the market. “Philadelphia works on loyalties-of viewers to stations, of employees to networks,” says Wally Dean. “Those loyalties are being strained. This is typical when you have upheaval in an industry.”
As the stakes and urgency continue to grow, TV news becomes even more homogenized. For years, Channel 6's Action News set the standard. Now, more than ever, everyone watches to see what works for the other guy, then copies it. Health and consumer reporting is emphasized. Weather is teased near the top of every show. Channel 10 has “Breaking News,” Channel 6 opts for “This Just In,” and Channel 3 likes “Developing News.” And everyone still has just 35 minutes for sports, weather (sometimes twice), and national and world events, along with a few things that happened within 50 miles of your home. Content hasn't improved, either: On one night in January, Jim Gardner read a story on penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, Marc Howard updated the arrest of a suspected foreign terrorist-a month before, in London-and Larry Mendte reported on an nbc 10 producer winning a Horticultural Society award.
Joe Rovitto, a media consultant and former news director based in Pittsburgh, says we're not likely to see a new broadcast revolution. “When Eyewitness News started, you had a nice new canvas to paint on,” he says. “Over 30 years, a lot of people have painted on that canvas. There's not much space. It's harder to get a [new] idea to resonate.” It's harder still to sell a new idea to hand-wringing network honchos.
Money drives the newsrooms, but budgets and six-figure stars won't matter if no one's watching. Viewers are the ultimate news directors, GMs and ceos, casting their thumbs up and down like Roman spectators with remote controls. Some in the news business feel those viewers should bear responsibility for what they're served. “I blame the audience for everything,” Marc Howard says. “We hold a mirror up to you and show you what you want to see. Somebody asked what I would change the most on TV news. I'd change the audience. I'd get an audience who loved politics and hated breaking news, who never wanted to see a fire truck again.”
So who will really come out on top this year: The corporations? The stations? The celebrities? The guy sunk in his couch with one hand on his gut and the other clutching a remote? It looks like a statistical tie.