Over a decade covering local TV, I have seen managers and on-air staff come and go.
Yet ratings haven't changed much. Channel 2 Action News remains the dominant No. 1. Fox 5 is the 10 p.m. king and is a solid No. 2. 11 Alive usually maintains a distant third while CBS46 typically finds traction only at 11 p.m.
Meredith Corp., which owns CBS46, has found nothing remotely close to stability in its efforts over the past 16 years to dig the station out of the ratings basement. But new general manager Mark Pimentel and news director Larry Perret, who built reputations for cleaning house and rebuilding TV stations, have revamped the station in a way that nobody in local TV news has seen before in such a short time.
That means on Monday, June 15, the station introduces an almost entirely new anchor lineup. In recent months, CBS46 has brought in a new chief meteorologist, revived its sports department, revamped its digital group, hired new producers and introduced a raft of new reporters. Virtually the only department that went relatively unscathed was its camera crew.
Pimentel acknowledged such a radical revamp was not ideal, that any positive impact on ratings will take a long time. But they both said they believe their bosses will show patience and has given them the financial resources to turn things around this time. If anything, they have certainly hired some firecrackers from out of town and created a cool new daily "Just a Minute" commentary from a vast array of mostly former journalists from other stations. (Details of that here.)
Here's an edited Q&A I had with Pimentel (who came to Atlanta in January) and Perret (who arrived in September) this past Friday at CBS46's midtown offices.
Q: So tell me what CBS46's situation is in your view.
Pimentel: We're currently a fourth-place operation here. Both the research and ratings point to the fact we were having trouble attracting viewers and keeping viewers that might be provided by lead ins to our shows. It called for an examination of where we were and what we're doing and who were key players in our operations both on screen and off screen.
Q: What's your background?
Pimentel: I worked at WSB as an executive producer (in 1988-89) and at 11 Alive as news director (from 1992-95). I've worked as a GM at five TV stations. But I've never done anything quite like this. This is unique.
Perret: I was last in our Kansas City station. We were both promoted from within the company. Last place stations are very similar. You have variables you can control: people, story selection and content and production. At last-place stations, you usually have problems in all those areas. You have to evaluate them.
Pimentel: I don't want to overlook the content issue. It's critical. We are working to improve our content. We feel in many ways that has been our biggest failing. At least when I got here, when Larry got here, it wasn't compelling content. There was not a reason to stay tuned to the newscasts. That's been a big focus. But it's an evolution. It's not a flip a switch and your content is where you want it to be. You'll really see things in a year, year and a half.
Me: Meredith hasn't shown a lot of patience with past management. Will you be given the breathing room?
Pimentel: We both feel secure. We're supported. We're not worried about a timetable.
Me: I'm amazed that no matter how many changes stations make in this market, ratings and rankings don't change much. Is there anything special about Atlanta?
Pimentel: It's a highly transient market which opens the door a little wider than in St. Louis [his last market.]. An improved product, a compelling product might draw them in. We find there are dissatisfied viewers who watch other TV stations. We've seen the research. We have strong competitors but we know there are opportunities.
It's a very diverse market with a growing Hispanic population and a very strong African-American population in both the power structure and the middle and upper class. It's also younger than many cities.
Me: How do you get anybody to pay attention nowadays?
Pimentel: Breaking through the clutter. I have so many resources available to me. How in the hell do I break through? The Pew study said local TV is still important but only on the basis of doing it on multiple platforms.
Perret: I'm putting an emphasis on enterprise stories that are hard news, stories that are not on the other stations. If things were perfect, I'd want 50 percent enterprise stories.
Me: Where are you at now?
Perret: 20 percent. I think there is too many crime coverage that is not relevant to people's lives. We are trying to reduce the amount of two-bit crime coverage, nickel-and-dime coverage. We have to differentiate ourselves and not do pack journalism... I said right from the beginning, we are not going to play the gimmick game.
Me: No Wizometer?
Perret: We respect our competitors.
Pimentel: We respect the intelligence of our viewers. That's why we know content is king.
Me: What makes your new hires special? You seem to have hired some interesting characters.
Perret: We have real people, authentic people you can relate to. We don't want to be vanilla.
Me: So what's up with Bobby Kaple, the new morning cohost?
Pimentel: Bobby has a diverse background in both news and sports. He's glib, he's quick on his feet.
Perret: She has described herself as unorthodox. She has the ability to draw people to the set because she's real. We couple that with good content and that should increase ratings.
Me: You kept [meteorologist] Jennifer Valdez, who I know is very popular.
Pimentel: We like Jennifer. She's one our most well-recognized personalities. We think her personality is a great fit for the mornings. Mornings are the toughest period to get people to change their habits. Personalities are the most important.
Me: What's your take Kim Passoth, your new mid-day anchor?
Perret: She's a hard news reporter from Oklahoma City. She covered a lot of tornadoes. She anchors but she is very much interested in going out every day and reporting for our 4, 5 and 6 o'clock news.
Me: Let's get to the evenings. You kept Tracye Hutchins. She's your last anchor standing
Pimental: Tracye's very popular. She's a great talent. She's nicely paired with Ben and Sharon.
Pimentel: He's a strong journalist, a compelling journalist. I think when he talks, you want to listen. That's what we saw.
Pimentel: I worked with her in St. Louis for the past two and a half years. She was one of the reasons we were able to lift KMOV from third to first. She's a compelling anchor and reporter.
Me: So isn't that a big loss for St. Louis?
Pimentel: Meredith encourages growth within the company to move on to bigger and better things. This is a bigger market. I feel the success we had in KMOV will continue even without her.
Me: With younger viewers now watching more TV not on the TV, what's your digital plans?
Pimentel: We've also transformed our digital efforts. We will double our staff. This is an area we have to be better in. We've hired a very strong managing editor [Kelly Frank] already. She's overseeing content across all platforms. Our content digitally is 500 percent than it was a year ago. It will get even better. It's a work in progress.
Me: With so many new faces, was the "Just a Minute" commentary idea a way to bring in familiar faces as well?
Pimentel: I came up with that idea long before all the talent changes. I had that idea last October before I even got here. I didn't know it would come to fruition but enough people on my wish list said yes. I'm excited. I hope we can stir things up.
Perret: We're encouraging Fred to give his take on sports, to give his opinion on plays and events. There's more opportunity for opinion in sports.
Pimentel: We're in the midst of rebuilding a sports department. [CBS46 got rid of it sports department in 2009, outsourcing sports to 790/The Zone, then fired them in 2013.]... I think there is space within our broadcasts for sports again... No reason we can't devote a couple of minutes a night to sports, which is part of American culture. I don't think they should have gotten rid of it. I don't know why they did it. Candidly, I don't know why they did a lot of things here.
Me: And I know Markina Brown left on her own. Why did you hire Jim Kosek (as chief meteorologist)?
Perret: He has personality and 25 years of experience at AccuWeather. He knows what he's doing.
Pimentel: We're really tried to focus on the accuracy of weather... We've launched our guaranteed forecast. The more accurate we are, the more we give to charity...
Me: Before we go, anything else you wanted to add?
Pimentel: We would have liked not to have made as many changes as we made. If we could have done this with what we had in terms of staff, it would have been much easier. … No one here is happy. We know lives have been disrupted. It’s not taken lightly.
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