May sweeps are over, and WJXT-TV Channel 4 resoundingly conquered the local ratings, establishing dominance in the Wagnerian Ring Cycle that is the morning news, as well as noon, evening and late-night broadcasts. There were times when The Local Station had as many viewers as the other two local outfits combined.
What’s the secret? I asked Bob Ellis, general manager of The Local Station, what he thought. Calling from Reagan National Airport in D.C., Ellis thought the formula was quite straightforward: continuity.
“We’ve had two main male anchors in 65 years,” he says. Tom Wills, for instance, has been with the station for four decades. And given what people in this market seem to expect from their local news operations — a large helping of comfort food — that kind of stability is essential.
Continuity enables a news operation to build relationships, which can mean the difference between winning and losing the ratings war. In Jacksonville, the hierarchy is clear: WJXT, then First Coast News, then, well, an operation that seems intent on divesting itself of all institutional memory.
Action News’ performance in the ratings wasn’t its big story for May — the report of the massive staff turnover was.
It’s been rumored that, by summer’s end, the station will divest itself of five major anchors who have been central to their branding in recent years: Lynnsey Gardner, who heads up the morning broadcasts; Mark Spain, whose move from First Coast News some years back seemed to legitimize the Action News operation; Paige Kelton, whose low-key approach imbued her telecasts with credibility; and Tera and Mike Barz, a husband-and-wife team who’ve been branded aggressively in this market as a “two for one” deal who yearned to put roots down locally, with Mike even getting to do some everyman-styled editorial segments in recent months.
All of these folks soon will be gone, and their respective Facebook pages have been blowing up with messages of condolence from aggrieved fans who might not have read my recent column “Why Local TV News Sucks” [April 16] and therefore did not realize that while local TV news is locally produced, the business operations by and large are dictated from elsewhere — as with Action News, which is owned by Cox. Which means that everyone onscreen serves at the pleasure of the far-away parent company.
I caught up with a highly placed on-air talent within Action News who offered insight into how Cox enters a market and then revamps operations; the source says that people should not be surprised by the bloodletting: “I think people are wanting it to be more scandalous than it is. It’s all about the money for these businesses that own media outlets. From what I know of Cox, they are serious about their research and focus groups. [In other markets,] they researched everyone before hiring them.
They were unable to do that with our anchors until they took over. Cox doesn’t own No. 3 stations, and that’s what we’ve been for so long. I’m assuming they put some or a lot of the blame on the anchors. It’s a business decision.”
After buying Action News in 2012, the Atlanta-based company — which owns dozens of daily and weekly newspapers, 15 TV stations and 86 radio stations nationwide — spent the next year making upgrades and conducting market research. “They have a formula,” the source tells me, “and if they don’t see ratings turn around after such investments, then they move on to the on-air talent. Isn’t Cox known for cleaning house at any station they purchase?”
Indeed it is — and anchors cost the most and have the greatest impact. And so Cox will turn to a new generation to pull Action News out of the ratings basement. What you can bank on: younger, less costly talent, mostly imported from smaller markets, eager young go-getters who mispronounce the names of local neighborhoods and streets because they just moved here. But at least they’ll look good doing it.