Sunday, November 2, 2008

WNBC's staff in turmoil as ax falls along with the ratings

Sunday, November 2nd 2008, 12:38 AM

News Channel 4 anchors Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons.
Rita, a loyal WNBC/Channel 4 viewer, is fed up.

She's tired of seeing familiar faces disappear, one by one.

"It's almost like you watch the news waiting for the ax to fall on the next person," she said. "I wonder if they're going to be there next week."

She was upset when anchor Rob Morrison left. She was angry learning that Carol Anne Riddell and Carolyn Gusoff would be scaled back on weekends.

And she's not alone. A lot of viewers - and staffers inside Channel 4 - wonder who will be there in the coming months.

Anchor changes are normal, but some of the other stuff going on at the station is not. Channel 4, once the most dominant station in town, is either in a state of total turmoil or in the middle of a smart transition to insure its survival in the digital age.

The answer, of course, is probably somewhere in between.

"The mood is terrible," said one staffer, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity. "They keep telling us the TV business is dead."

Another insider says the mood inside is "surreal."

The troubles at Channel 4 have been ongoing, but hit a crisis point over the last year. News ratings have fallen, impacted by bad programming moves and internal changes, taking employee morale down with them.

In the last few months, a new management team has launched a complete makeover of the behind-the-scenes operation, which, they say, is better positioning Channel 4 to provide content to multiple platforms.

"TV news is alive and well - and it is changing," said Tom O'Brien, general manager of Channel 4. "Anybody who is fighting the change is fighting a losing battle."

O'Brien points to the new ways viewers consume information as the reason for the transformation. He also notes the station is putting $15 million into a new newsroom to feed the places people get news.

Rather than just focus on what goes on scheduled Channel 4 newscasts, the station is also launching a cable channel, dubbed the NY Channel, and has a new Web site targeting a different crowd, but that also plays down the WNBC brand.

What troubles insiders is the way the changes have been handled - "ruthless" is a word often used to describe the way some have been treated by management.

Off-camera staffers were asked to apply for newly created positions, leading some seasoned news executives to leave or be cut. That move, some say, has weakened the newsroom.

Those who remain with the station worry they'll be asked to do more with less. They worry they won't be able to compete on big stories.

"Change is difficult," O'Brien said. "But change is necessary, and audiences are telling us that. And, again, in the end, the objective of the change is to provide more opportunities to reach our audience."

Some staffers say they see an upside in the process. Some dead wood has been eliminated, and a 24-hour cable channel may provide an opportunity to air more stories.

"I think people understand that we have to embrace new technology," said an insider, "but it's a question of physics: How can you put on five newscasts a day, fill up a Web site and run a 24-hour news channel with far fewer employees?"

While all of this is going on, rival WABC/Channel 7, now the top-rated New York station, continues to send reporters on the road.

"The important part is being on the scene, wherever it is," said the source. "It shows the viewers you are committed to covering the news, not just picking up some network report."

That's the stuff that impacts viewers like Rita, who said she flips over to WCBS/Channel 2 or New York 1 News in the morning. She still watches Channel 4 in the evening, but threatens to go elsewhere if the changes don't stop.

"If they got rid of Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons," she said, "I probably wouldn't watch anymore."

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