The 25-year quandary: Will CBS 2 ever get it right?

August 16, 2010

Bruno Cohen

When Bruno Cohen took over as president and general manager of WBBM-Channel 2 nearly two years ago, he knew one thing for certain: The revolving door of news anchors had to stop spinning once and for all.

At our first get-acquainted lunch, Cohen offered a shrewd outsider's assessment of the market and the CBS-owned station's place in it. Viewers had become so sick and tired of constant changes in front-line talent that they'd simply given up on Channel 2. The key to turning things around, he deduced, was to stick with an anchor team -- any anchor team, really -- and give the audience time to find them and become comfortable with them.

It seemed like a reasonable strategy then, and it seems like a reasonable strategy now. Unfortunately, Cohen hasn't followed it.

In recent weeks, Channel 2 announced plans for the third configuration of its evening news lineup in the last 18 months (and the 11th‚ in the last 10 years). And thanks to a premature leak last Thursday, the station was forced to tip its hand about plans for a complete overhaul of its morning newscast for the second time this year.

On Friday, I reminded Cohen of our conversation when he first came to town and the passion with which he spoke of restoring stability to the historically troubled operation. "Stability is always an issue," he replied. "But growth is the goal.‚ It's my job to find the balance between the two."

I've seen seven general managers struggle to turn around Channel 2 in the last 25 years -- Johnathan Rodgers, Bill Applegate, Bob McGann, Hank Price, Walt DeHaven, Joe Ahern and now Cohen. The list of news directors who've come and gone during that time is even longer. Each strove to find the same balance between stability and growth. (The only one who came close to succeeding was Applegate, who briefly put the station into a tie for first place in the early '90s with a splashy bag of tricks that included emphasizing crime and mayhem, airing lottery drawings during the news hosted by women in slinky evening gowns, and inflicting a character named Larry Mendte on this market.)

What I find ominous about Channel 2's latest course is the appearance that it's being programmed by remote control out of New York, with CBS stations boss Peter Dunn and newly minted news vice president David Friend sending us second stringers from WCBS-TV as if Chicago were a sort of farm team in reverse. Perhaps that's to be expected when the same people who run the New York flagship -- as Dunn and Friend do -- have authority over the entire station group. Here's whom they've dispatched so far:

  • Kate Sullivan, morning news anchor at WCBS, joins Channel 2 as Rob Johnson's 5 and 10 p.m. co-anchor, starting Sept. 13. When Cohen axed Anne State last year, he played up Johnson's status as solo anchor as a positive point of differentiation in the market. But it was deemed more important to keep Sullivan in the company by securing a main anchor job for her -- even if it meant another disruption for Channel 2.
  • Steve Bartelstein, whose checkered career in New York made him fodder for the tabloids there, quit WCBS as a weekend news anchor because he felt "underappreciated." But that didn't stop Dunn and Friend from bringing him back into the fold and assigning him to Channel 2 as morning news anchor, replacing Cohen's baby, "Monsters and Money in the Morning," which had been on only since Feb. 1.
  • Megan Glaros, a third WCBS expatriate and the station's weekend morning meteorologist, has been conscripted to Channel 2 as meteorologist for the new morning show being developed for Bartelstein (and a co-anchor to be named later). She also may do some "entertainment reporting," according to published reports.

Channel 2 is trying to make much of the fact that all three newcomers from New York have roots in the Chicago area. Sullivan graduated from the University of Notre Dame and worked for a station in South Bend, Ind., Bartelstein grew up in Skokie, and Glaros was born in Dyer, Ind. But none has ever worked on the air in Chicago, and all three are virtually unknown to local viewers.

Even as New York appears to be calling the shots, Cohen and news director Jeff Kiernan managed to create a diversion by signing aging anchor icons Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson to front Channel 2's 6 p.m. newscast, starting Sept. 1. But as noted here the other day, it's hard not to view their reunion as an act of desperation -- an extended publicity stunt for the station and a cash grab for Bill & Walter in their golden years.

The imminent demise of "Monsters and Money in the Morning" is a different matter. Channel 2 deserves a modicum of credit for trying something different after years of failing with a standard newscast in the morning. But this four-headed beast, a roundtable gabfest hosted by Mike North, Dan Jiggetts, Terry Savage and Mike Hegedus, wasn't the answer. (As far as I was concerned, the show jumped the shark after one week when billionaire mogul Sam Zell was an in-studio guest for 40 minutes and never was asked a single question about Tribune Co. by any of the show's hosts.)

But Cohen may have been on the right track when he first described the concept as "something new and smart that will differentiate CBS 2 from its competitors [by targeting] an underserved television audience -- Chicagoans who are passionate about sports and want to stay on top of local business news." Like other experiments we've seen at Channel 2 over the years, he vowed to give the show time to evolve and find an audience. On Friday, he acknowledged his sadness at pulling the plug after only seven months:

"In my heart I did not want to cancel 'Monsters.' I love the show.‚ But my head required me to do it.‚ It was the responsible business decision."

Starting Aug. 30, Channel 2 will return to a more traditional format in the morning, playing catch-up with the rest of the market by starting its pre-dawn news block at 4:30 a.m. Given the unfamiliar presence of Bartelstein, Glaros and whomever else WCBS foists on the show between now and then, Chicago viewers will be excused if they think they've accidentally stumbled on a New York newscast.

Just one question: Whom will Cohen's bosses blame when this one fails?

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