Sunday, April 19

Friends, Romans, Countrymen . . .

. . . lend me your ears;

I come to bury WYOU, not to praise it.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with WYOU.

WYOU-TV is dead. That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today
(extra credit if you can tell me the movie I just quoted).

I want to make it perfectly clear: the many, many good people who labored so long
and hard at WYOU-TV deserve nothing but praise. For many of them, Channel 22 was
their life's work. They were, sadly, delusional, but that doesn't mean they weren't
dedicated. They kept waiting for "the new owners" (and weren't there always new owners
on the horizon?) to ride to the rescue, to recognize that dedication and pump big bucks
into the operation. But —honestly now —what kind of money do you think it would have taken
to make WYOU competitive in the last few years?

There's plenty of blame to go around. But here's where I'm going to surprise you: I don't think
all of it falls at the feet of Perry Sook and Nexstar (more on that later).

No, I blame the original owners of the old WDAU-TV, the Megargee family. In the end,
WYOU-TV just wasn't playing on a level playing field. In the beginning, WDAU wasn't playing
on a level field, either: THE FIELD WAS TILTED IN 22'S DIRECTION.

Here's a caveat: I'm an old-timer, but I wasn't around in those days. My time at WNEP
began in 1983. But I do have some knowledge that stretches back into the 70s. Elden Hale,
the News Director and later GM who first brought WNEP to prominence (and later dominance) was an
old friend of mine. We had our first jobs together in (gulp!) 1969. After he took over as WNEP
N.D. in (I'm guessing now) 1974, he invited me for a visit. I honestly didn't know it was to offer
me a job as his assistant. But I had a chance to meet the Shelburnes (The "Toms," Sr. & Jr.),
who owned the station, and to hear about their plans and how they were positioned in the market.

Positioned? Hell, WNEP wasn't a blip on the radar. WDAU was "The Scranton Station," and was
#1. WBRE was "The Wilkes-Barre Station" and was #2. WNEP was no one's

station, and it showed.16 was understaffed and underequipped. And you probably don't remember, but in those days
ABC was one crappy network: calling it an also-ran would be generous.

Elden told me, though, that the Shelburnes thought ABC was going to take off, and they were prepared
to sink every spare penny into news. News was the future, and Elden realized that he could make
'NEP #1 in the market by covering the outlying areas. Let 22 have Lackawanna County, let 28
have Luzerne County, Elden was going to start by going to the 20-or-so other counties that had
never gotten news coverage. He'd win in the outlying areas, then tackle the Metro counties.

I liked Elden. Heck, I even loved Elden. But I wasn't about to believe that claptrap. I honestly
remember thinking, "WNEP is the 'Elephant Burial Ground' of television. No one who goes in will
ever come out alive." I turned him down.

OK, so I'm not the brightest bulb on the tree.

Elden and the Shelburnes outlined came true —and more. ABC rocketed upward
(ever hear of Happy Days?). 16 expanded its staff, bought new equipment, leased the first "Skycam"
helicopter, and started out-hustling, out-covering, out-shooting, out-reporting, out-promoting and
out-classing the competition. Neither competitor really "got it" until it was too late —until WNEP was #1.

After winning the outlying areas, Elden established central-city "Newsrooms" in downtown
Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, and grabbed those viewers, too. What's the line from There Will be Blood:

WBRE answered, in its own way, but the Baltimore family wasn't the Shelburne family: they were
committed to making money. The Shelburnes figured if you made great TV, money would follow.
WDAU barely tried. Figuratively: the first time WNEP made an extra five bucks it put $5 into news. WDAU
saw what was going on an put in $2. Next thing you know, WNEP made $75. WDAU shoved $15 into
the pot. And that's the way it went while WNEP established itself as THE TV station in the area, and
one of the most dominant in the country.

There was a glimmer of hope in there somewhere: when "Diversified Communications" took over
Channel 22. They used smoke and mirrors to try at least look like they were on an even footing with 16.
When that effort didn't produce results, Perry Sook took over. He claimed that 22 was bleeding money.
That's when Debbie Dunleavy and Rich Everitt were canned. And still — against all evidence —the staff was
hoping it would get better, somehow, someday.

Which bring us to "Mission Broadcasting" (whatever that is —anyone really think it's the real owner of WYOU?),
Perry Sook's little shell game, and to the "shared services" agreement that wound up putting WBRE and
WYOU in the same building. That agreement wound up killing off WYOU.

And I predicted it.

When the pairing was announced, a dozen-or-so years ago, I was back at WNEP as News Director. The
WNEP staff, always (for someone unknown reason) notoriously skittish, saw it as a real danger. They
thought Sook as going plow big bucks into his new "shared services" operation and come after 16. Not so,
I explained. Whoever this Sook guys is (I didn't know at the time), he's not in this to spend money, he's into
it to save money. He's combining so he doesn't have to pay two receptionists to answer phones —just one.
There won't be two janitors —only one. Not two electric bills —one.

I wrote a memo (if you're at WNEP, maybe you can look it up) which predicted that when the time was right
the far-back-in-third-place WYOU news operation would be killed off, and WBRE would try to siphon off those
viewers. I think I said something to the effect that WBRE would stand on WYOU's corpse to try to reach up
to WNEP's level.

I was right. Early ... but right.

Of course, I didn't know then that I would eventually be working for Perry Sook and Nexstar. It was like making
sausage. Once you see how it's done, you lose your taste for it. But hey, everyone needs a job, right?

And yet--and this may surprise, even offend some of you, but I don't blame Perry Sook for pulling WYOU out
of the news business. He merely put it out of its misery. No amount of money, in these hardscrabble times,
was going to make WYOU competitive again.

Don't get me wrong: Perry Sook is a bottom-feeder, a scavanger, a leech. He lurks (that's the best word)
around the bottom of broadcasting, looking for someone in trouble that he can "rescue" and then gut.

How many TV stations does Nexstar own or operate? Close to five dozen, right? Is there one of the them
—a single on of them —that has gone up in news ratings since he took over? I don't think so. Oh, one or two
may still have remained #1 after he acquired them: but he's never made any news operation successful.
Profitable? By his measuring system, most (I imagine) make a profit. But those that don't: hey, read the
WYOU handwriting (or is that blood) on the wall.

He's a money man, pure and simple. He reads the bottom line. He could be running a shoe factory.

Is there anyone else who has benefitted from this "shared services" and "duopoly" business like
Perry Sook? No. Are there any TV stations anywhere with less of an honest commitment to public service?
Of course not! Perry Sook is, ipso facto, the single best argument that local TV stations should be owned only
by local people.

And yet ... and yet ... I'm not sure Perry has ever lied about is gameplan or his intentions.

No, I fault him for the sleezy way he skates around the truth. He never lies, but hes one helluva sugar-coater.
He hints that his stations are building for the future: that the car he's building will be competitive at the track.
But when you go into the parking lot you find he's trying to fix up a 1963 four-cylinder Corvair and pass it
off as a 2009 Corvette. He says he's committed to community service: but only if there's a high rate of return
on investment.

He's a salesman —a damn good one —but he never cared about his stations or his staff. They're all just
numbers on a spreadsheet to him.

But hell, it's 2009, right? Times are tough. As Howard Beale (the original "Howard Beale" from the movie
) said: "I don't have to tell you things are bad, everybody knows things are bad."

How bad? So bad that even WNEP, still one of the most dominant TV stations in the country, has been sold
(by the New York Times Company, which had bought it from the Shelburnes in 1985). The new owners are just
some other group with "LLC" at the end of their name, and they've already started cutting back.

If the flood waters can reach all the way up to the WNEP studios on Montage Mountain, it must really be
raining HARD out there!
Brace yourselves for a rugged boat ride ahead. I'm not sure where higher
ground can be found. I'm not sure how many will survive. I still read ShopTalk and NewsBlues every day.
It's like reading the obituary column. News isn't the future anymore, it's the past. Personally, I think I've been lucky.
I got into TV just after the beginning, and I got out just before the end.

Things couldn't be worse at WYOU right now. There is still a Channel 22: a conduit for CBS programs and an
outlet for informercials. But WYOU is, for all intents and purposes, dead. It took with it the hopes and dreams
and hard work of some wonderful people. In the end it gave nothing back to those who gave it so much for
so long.

But it wasn't really Perry Sook's fault.

No, Channel 22 hit the iceberg 35 years ago. The Megargees steered it there. Other owners tried to keep it
afloat without spending real money to fix the leaks. Sook was just the guy who finally threw up his hands and
said, "Let it sink."



bill said...

Very well said Paul. I was one of those who worked at 22 back in the 80's and saw a glimmer of hope when Keystone Broadcasters bought the station, invested some cash, and then the flame flickered brighter when Diversified Communications took over. We made the market at least notice we were there, and put out a pretty decent product,but as you say, we were sooooo far back that it was an impossible task.
they ripped the heart out of the station and then wonder why it died?
I whole heartedly agree with you about local ownership. I started there the same time you did and saw all three network affiliates go from being locally owned to being owned by corporations. in '83 there was, for the most part, a sense of pride in ownership, a committment to the community, but that is all gone. And that is a shame. Same thing with WARM. When the bean counters take over and cut staff, eliminate the station's "personality" and automate so its a jukebox with an antenna, that is when viewers and listeners leave.

Right now, if someone wanted to purchase WYOU what could they get, a transmitter and a piece of paper? Same with WARM, only they would get a broken transmitter.

I look back at my time in the market with fondness and am glad I was in when I was in and got out when I got out.

Jeffers66 said...

I'm not real familiar with your market, but this is pretty consistent with what I'm seeing around the country right now. Good analysis.