With Sinclair's new ownership of Seattle's KOMO, there's a big drive to dethrone Gannett's KING from the No. 1 news spot. But the NBC affil KING isn't resting on its laurels. And while KIRO's news leadership is in flux, it's also got a stake in the ratings race.
KOMO Ups Pressure To Unseat KING In News
Folks from KING Seattle were in New York last week picking up a Peabody Award for their investigation into the handling of nuclear waste, adding to an awards cache that already includes Peabody, Silver Baton and a record number of regional Emmy awards.
Ray Heacox, GM of the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate, says the trophies are a testament “to the quality level of our journalism,” something that has fueled KING’s dominance in the country’s 13th largest market for more than a decade.
Heacox fully expects that dominance to continue, even though KING and top contender KOMO have gotten new owners in the past year. Gannett bought KING along with the rest of the Belo stations, while KOMO, the ABC affiliate, passed into the hands of Sinclair Broadcast Group as part of its acquisition of Fisher Broadcasting.
Other than the advent of new owners, “there have been no actual changes in affiliation and no fundamental changes in station rank or position,” Heacox says. “So as a television market, it’s pretty steady.”
But Heacox says he takes nothing for granted. “In the media business there is no such thing as a comfortable anything,” he says. “I would never claim to be a comfortable anything let alone a comfortable No. 1.”
An average of ratings during the last November, February and May sweeps shows KING’s newscast at 5 p.m. (when all four stations go head-to-head) at No. 1 with a 1.9 rating/9.7 share with viewers 25-54, according to numbers provided by the station. KOMO had a 1.7/9.1, followed by KIRO’s 0.8/4.1 and KCPQ’s 0.6/3.0.
KING’s 11 p.m. newscast in those same books also had the highest ratings average, earning a 1.9/9. KIRO’s latenight news rated second with a 1.6/7, followed by KOMO at a 1.4/6.0. (Tribune Fox’s affiliate KCPQ runs its late news at 10 p.m., which earned 1.3/4.2 competing against network entertainment programs.)
In the just completed May book, the Big Three affiliates ended in a dead heat in late news with a 1.5 rating in the demo.
KOMO has been the most consistent challenger to KING. KOMO News Director Holly Gauntt says she is invigorated by the investments that Sinclair has made in the stations since it took over from the cash-strapped Fisher last August.
“I feel like someone has taken the handcuffs off, and we are we going to be a No. 1 station,” she says.
Gauntt, who’s been at KOMO for seven years, says staffers were wary of Sinclair, which has a bad rep in newsrooms for cutting staffs and airing right-wing slanted news.
And Sinclair did layoff a reported 18 KOMO staffers including editors, satellite-truck operators, writers and producers, a move that got them slammed in the local press.
But Gauntt says many of those cuts were long in coming, due largely to Fisher being heavy on unnecessary personnel. “You don’t want to lose people, but at the same time this station had never made changes that came with technology,” she says.
At the same time, Gauntt says, Sinclair asked her what she needed “to be the No. 1 station in the market.” They responded, building the station’s first new set in 15 years and buying loads of equipment including three cellular bonded units, a satellite truck, new computers and five cars.
Gauntt says other benefits include sharing content with other Sinclair stations, especially for coverage of big events like the Super Bowl, and a new marketing campaign. A crew from Sinclair’s WSYX Columbus, Ohio, helped KOMO cover the Oso mudslide.
“Yes, we all heard the horror stories but that’s not what the reality is,” she says. “I don’t know what’s happened in the past. But what I do know is that it is a breath of fresh air, and a nice surprise, that this company now is committed to news. We are telling them what we need to be No. 1 and they are delivering.”
KIRO, the Cox-owned CBS affiliate, declined to be interviewed for this story, possibly because its news management is in flux. News Director Bob Jordan, whom some credit with propelling KING to dominance when he ran its newsroom in the two decades ago, last Friday announced that he would retire at the end of June.
But KIRO reporter Deborah Horne says her station has what it takes to win, as shown by its latest ranking in latenight news.
The station has become considerably more aggressive over time and recently expanded investigative reporting, she says. “Yes, we want to beat KING and that has always been the case,” Horne says. “We have never acted like a station that wasn’t No. 1. We set the tone.”
That the Seattle audience is fickle adds to her hope, she says. “There is very little loyalty in this market. On any given night people will watch any given station.”
Heacox says Gannett’s acquisition of KING had little impact on that station’s newsroom, which also produces news for KONG, KING’s independent sister station, and a regional news network. Other than a change in graphics, any Gannett-related changes have taken place behind-the-scenes, systems upgrades and the like, he says.
Heacox says he has no compulsion to mess with the winning formula. “We have a giant and longstanding brand that’s very good for us, but we also put a lot of resources into doing the best newscasts.”
One market watches says she isn’t ready to place any bets.
Peg Achterman, a Seattle Pacific University journalism professor and former KING photographer, says KOMO “has the chops” to catch up with KING, even after weathering several non-ownership challenges including 5 and 11 p.m. anchor Dan Lewis’s retirement last week after 27 years and the March chopper crash that killed a photographer and pilot.
“They do excellent journalism,” she says.