Underdog Channel 41 shakes up news ratings

02/23/2014 1:00 PM

02/24/2014 1:12 PM

If you want a picture of what’s going on at KSHB, Channel 41, just head back to the sports department, behind a wall in one corner of the newsroom. That’s where, one early evening last week, we found Kansas City TV veterans Jack Harry and Frank Boal, their desks facing each other.

Both sports anchors signed on to the NBC affiliate after long hauls at competing stations, KCTV-5 in Harry’s case, Fox 4 in Boal’s.

No, Harry can’t cite chapter and verse of Channel 41’s news-making news ratings. But he knows things are looking up, and he points to another guy who switched stations: Brian Bracco, who for a dozen years (starting in 1987) was news director at long-dominant KMBC and then a top executive for that station’s owner, Hearst Corp.

Bracco became vice president and general manager at 41 a little over a year ago.

Arriving at KSHB, “I think he garnered immediate respect for what he did at Channel 9,” Harry says.

Last November, one of the big three “sweeps” periods for ratings (February is another), KSHB — perennial last-place station in Kansas City — did something it had apparently never done before.

“41 Action News” finished the month in first place. No, not across the board. But No. 1 at 6 p.m. And, if you include the half-hour of “NBC Nightly News,” KSHB says it was No. 1 in viewers between 5 and 6:30 p.m.

This month, with NBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Winter Olympics, the good news has just kept on coming for KSHB.

No. 1 at 10 o’clock the last couple of weeks? It wasn’t Channel 9’s news. It was Olympics, followed at 10:30 by Channel 41’s late news, a fine opportunity to get viewers who usually watch another channel to check out KSHB.

Last fall, under Bracco, KSHB successfully bid to carry a Thursday night Chiefs game against Philadelphia. Boal says the station, “an afterthought for so long,” sent practically half the newsroom to Philly to cover it. Same thing when NBC broadcast a Sunday night Chiefs game in Denver.

Rival stations noticed the effort, Boal says, and wondered “What are they doing?”

His response: “Well, we’re doing.”

Chief meteorologist Gary Lezak, arguably the station’s best-known personality, can trot out a Chiefs analogy for any occasion (yes, we’re still talking football). Consider, he says, the hometown team hiring head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey. “The Chiefs suddenly have this great year last year. Did they win the Super Bowl? No.

“Did KSHB after hiring Bracco win the Super Bowl? No. But we’re winning playoff games and our end goal is to be the No. 1 station.”

Lezak and his weather dogs crossed the street 15 years ago from Fox 4’s popular morning show. At Channel 41 he has worked for four general managers and five news directors. Current news director Carrie Hofmann, hired by Bracco, joined the station last March.

For his part Bracco, while proud of his new station’s recent ratings accomplishments, is quick to acknowledge the work still to be done.

What was his perception of KSHB’s news when he arrived at the station in December 2012? He pauses.

“I think,” Bracco says finally, “there were some opportunities.” That elicits a laugh from Hofmann, sitting beside him at a table in his office.

“We were fourth,” Bracco adds. “And talking to the people here, they didn’t want to be fourth.”

The challenge, Hofmann says, “was about getting everyone growing in the same direction.

“Some people probably didn’t realize they could be something other than fourth. It was like, ‘OK, I’m here, I’m doing the job,’ and not understanding there was a way to raise the bar.”

It’s important to note that KSHB’s success in early evening news didn’t happen overnight. Look back five years at the 6 o’clock news: In the November 2008 sweeps, Channel 41 essentially tied for second place with KCTV; both were well behind KMBC.

In November 2011, KSHB was a more solid second place at 6.

And last November, while 41 finished No. 1 at 6 p.m., the difference between first place and fourth place was less than one ratings point.

So Kansas City is definitely a competitive TV market. “This is not a laydown,” Bracco says. “It’s hard work.”

Several factors can affect newscast ratings, says Wayne Godsey, who retired in 2011 after 12 years as president and general manager at Channel 9. A major change in anchors is one. A major change in lead-in is another.

In Channel 9’s case, longtime anchor Larry Moore stepped down to “emeritus” status at the end of November. He’d been doing only the 6 p.m. newscast for a year.

And KMBC lost the Oprah Winfrey effect in 2011 when her popular talk show ended. “Dr. Oz” at 4 p.m., as a lead-in to early news, has proved to be no Oprah.

Godsey, who now lives in Florida, says that when he was at KMBC, “internally we felt that KSHB was putting on a good product. I’m not sure they always got credit in the ratings because ratings sometimes move like molasses. It’s very difficult to change (viewers’) habits.”

At any rate, Godsey says, it means something to be able to call yourself No. 1. “Why is it important? You have to start somewhere.” And it can mean more ad revenue.

“I do think that news competition, particularly if it’s driven by quality product and not flash and trash, in a market like Kansas City is very, very good for the entire market,” Godsey says. “It’s very good for the viewers.”

KSHB got some big-time affirmation of its work last December, when Columbia University awarded the station a prestigious duPont Award for its breaking news coverage of the JJ’s Restaurant explosion a year ago this month. Channel 41 aired an hourlong special on the explosion in April.

It was the first time a Kansas City station has won a duPont.

For years 41 (formerly KBMA) was an independent station — no network affiliation and no or little local news. That changed when it joined the brand-new Fox network in 1986. Then in 1994, KSHB and WDAF, a longtime NBC affiliate, switched networks. Channel 41, which had launched a freewheeling 9 p.m. newscast designed to appeal to Fox’s younger viewers, toned things down and added newscasts once the Peacock landed.

KSHB, following KCTV-5’s lead, has started doing news at 4 p.m, which probably builds momentum for the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts. (There’s a theory that the best lead-in to news is news.) What else explains KSHB’s uptick? Hofmann says investigative stories are now part of the mix at 6. And there’s a focus on how the newscast is written, to make it conversational, easy to understand.

Weather is always a big driver, too, she says. KSHB now has five weather anchors.

And, of course, there’s the anchor team, which Bracco describes as “an ensemble cast.”

The ratings picture is decidedly less rosy at other times of the day. KSHB placed third, barely above KCTV, at 6 a.m. in the November sweeps. KSHB was third as well at 10 p.m. (Fox 4 was fourth), although 41 and Fox 4 finished second and third, respectively (trailing KMBC), among the younger viewers prized by advertisers.

At the moment Channel 41 is still high from the Olympics. The good news: Kansas Citians watched in droves — ratings for the Games were higher in only four other U.S. cities. Ratings for KSHB’s late news increased 46 percent over what they were the week before the Olympics started.

The bad news: The Olympics are over.

And the too-soon-to-tell news: Channel 9 has reportedly bought “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” (it’s now on KCTV) and is expected to air it at 4 p.m. this fall, which will likely give the station a better lead-in for its 5 p.m. news. (The general managers at KMBC, KCTV and WDAF did not respond to requests for comment.)

But back to the here and now

“We’re excited about what I would call limited success so far,” Hofmann says. “I want to have a bigger piece if we can, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Bracco adds: “We have a little wind in our sails. And we want to see if we can do better. The goal is No. 1.”

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SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

When it comes to news, Kansas City’s four major network affiliates each get a piece of the ratings pie these days. That’s especially true at 5 p.m., when the four local newscasts are in a virtual dead heat, according to last November’s Nielsens. The ratings race at 6 p.m. is tight, too. Otherwise:

WDAF, Fox 4,

is strong in the morning, usually in a fight for first place with Channel 9 at 6 a.m.

KCTV-5

typically places second at 10 p.m. It also leads at 4 p.m., when its only news competition is Channel 41.

KMBC, Channel 9,

finished No. 1 at 6 a.m. in November and a strong No. 1 at 10 p.m.

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THE STORY AT 6

The battle at 6 p.m. is close, but in the November 2013 sweeps, KSHB finished No. 1 — the first time Channel 41 has won any news time period in at least a decade and probably ever. (In Kansas City, each Nielsen ratings point represents about 9,400 households. The share is the percentage of TV sets in use at the time.)

KSHB, Channel 41:

6.58 rating, 12.4 share

WDAF, Fox 4:

6.10 rating, 11.6 share

KCTV, Channel 5:

5.99 rating, 11.3 share

KMBC, Channel 9: 5.93 rating, 11.2 share

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