Pulse: Power: News Blues

Heading into this month’s “sweeps,” the big story in local news is simple: What’s happened to NBC 10?

Four years ago this month, the buzz in TV newsrooms was how NBC 10 had edged Action News in the 11 o’clock ratings — an upset of Red Soxian proportions, since Channel 6 hadn’t lost a sweeps in 25 years. Last November, CBS 3 became the big news, crawling out of the basement into second place for the first time in a decade. Heading into this month’s ratings race, we suddenly have three horses in the mix, with NBC 10 now bringing up the rear. (Full disclosure: CBS 3 and Philadelphia magazine are in a partnership agreement similar to that of NBC 10 and the Philadelphia Inquirer.) NBC 10 says its ratings slip was a slight one. But you don’t need to be a newsroom insider to see why they’re fading.  

As in sports, momentum in TV news isn’t easily regained, and NBC 10’s most obvious handicap is its philosophy regarding talent, or a lack thereof. After riding its “breaking news and weather” format to the top in 2001, the station lost Larry Mendte and Kathy Orr (both defected to CBS 3) as well as John Bolaris (who was allowed to flee to New York). But rather than replace them, the station banked that its format would hide a lack of roster depth. Now, anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah sits beside the blow-dried Tim Lake — who actually sued the station to leave in 2002 — and Hurricane Schwartz, who doesn’t seem as effective without Bolaris, the bad-boy yin to his geeky yang. “It’s a bunch of number twos stepping into number one roles,” says Laura Nachman, TV columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times. “They have assets, like Renee, Cherie Bank and Vai Sikahema, but they’ve also let other people go, like Karen Hepp.”

NBC 10 insists it does value talent — though these are the people who hired contest winner John Ogden to do traffic. Still, attracting high-profile free agents will be tough. A union/management stalemate has caused a three-year pay freeze for writers and producers. A string of news-judgment gaffes last year (including luring pedophiles to a Newtown Square neighborhood as a sweeps stunt) has damaged credibility. And a lack of aggressiveness has staffers questioning leadership. “The general manager [Dennis Bianchi] and news director [Chris Blackman] are known as corporate hacks,” says an insider. “They care about the bottom line.” (Bianchi and Blackman declined comment.)

Hope for change seems slim, as the station stands behind its “format first” approach. “Chris is creative, caring, and makes us better,” says one of Blackman’s defenders, who blames the ratings decline on the strength of competitors’ lead-in programming. “Chris can’t control Dr. Phil.”

And so goes the usual TV news finger-pointing. We’re down because our prime-time lineup stinks. We’re really still number two, you’re just not looking at the right demos. This month, it’s sure to be another close finish. But if the order has shifted, NBC 10 won’t lure viewers back easily. “In Philly,” says Steve Doerr, a former NBC 10 news director, “changing newscasts is like changing churches.”