On March 2, when the world was in a metaphoric limbo line and wondering, “How low can you go, Dow Jones?,” news staffers at CBS affiliate WTVH-Channel 5 were quickly pink-slipped during a Monday morning massacre. WSTM-Channel 3 anchor Matt Mulcahy announced during the noon newscast that the 1030 James St. neighbor, controlled by Barrington Communications, was taking over various operations at the Granite Broadcasting-owned WTVH, everything from news to advertising, as the two conglomerates hashed out joint-sales and shared-service agreements. On March 3 moving-company trucks went in and out of the driveway at WTVH, 980 James St., and it shouldn’t be long before station headquarters is emptied out and up for sale, leaving behind a David Letterman-sized dental gap on the Salt City’s once-hallowed Broadcasters Row.
It was a coup that local-TV insiders could see coming (a Feb. 3 posting on the CNY Television News site warned of a possible merger, and Radio-Info.com got there earlier on a Jan. 31 board post), yet the March 2 shock waves still would have tilted the Titanic. Hindsight being an exact science, it now seems obvious that WSTM was busily setting up the deck chairs, too. A few days earlier came the Feb. 27 on-air announcement that lunchtime anchor Laura Hand was relocating to weekend-host duties; meanwhile, former weekender Andrea Bullard has currently moved her perky personality for daily action in the early-morning and noon news slots, now giving her two channels to maximize her exposure via simulcasts.
The late Ron Curtis.
As WSTM was shoring up its personnel placements, it was grim business-as-usual at WTVH. Combine Channel 5’s continued last-place position in the three-station local newscast ratings (despite dependable CBS lead-ins such as the CSI ratings juggernauts), with Central New York’s slowly dwindling Nielsen status in the U.S. television market (from No. 76 in 2005 to No. 81 in 2008), and you’ve got the ingredients for Granite’s bottom-line bloodbath. The Barrington-Granite hit list wasn’t solely confined to Syracuse, however: Also on March 2, Barrington’s WHOI was forced into bed with Granite’s WEEK in Peoria, Ill., with an estimated 30 WHOI staffers getting hemorrhaged in the merger. Incidentally, WHOI signed on in October 1953 under the call letters WTVH!
Back home on dismissal day, the WTVH anchors’ mug shots were quickly yanked from the station’s Web site and a new news order was established. During the transitional week Channel 5 holdover Michael Benny was still on hand for hosting the early-afternoon and late-evening news programs (several stories were reported by WTVH newbie Joe Roetz, also an apparent survivor—for now), but then Benny would have to toss it over to Channel 3’s team for either taped or live simulcasts of Wayne Mahar’s weather forecasts and John Evenson’s sports highlights. Benny, who would pass for Mr. Peanut if given a top hat and cane (so, for that matter, could former anchor Kevin Schenk, recently thrown under the bus at WSTM along with Don Lark), had enough professional moxie to make this illusion work—that is, if you were an out-of-towner watching the boob tube in a Carrier Circle motel room.
For local viewers, alas, it felt inevitable that WTVH would give up the Cronkitean ghost of Ron Curtis and begin piping in WSTM’s “Action News” feed for all of the news slots. And thus, Channel 5’s six-decade history of newscasting would be really and sincerely dead.
Some local pundits connected the 2000 retirement of WTVH uber-anchor Curtis—who passed away in 2001 at age 74—with the station’s slide, although that’s just adding even more mythic luster to his revered status. (Central New Yorkers worth their salt already know that familiar story, as Curtis got his start back when the station was known as WHEN, then held onto the news anchor position from 1966 to 2000.) Closer to the truth was Granite’s inability to capitalize on the news team of stalwarts they already had to retain the station’s sense of identity; take, for example, vivacious anchor Liz Ayers’ 2006 departure for the more welcoming arms of WCNY-Channel 24. Then-WTVH general manager Les “Boom Boom” Vann’s Grinch-like failure to renew the contracts of likable leading players Matt Mulcahy in December 2004 and Maureen Green in December 2007 proved to be major PR bungles that affected viewership.
Meanwhile, Time Warner News 10 Now’s 2005 migration of Janelle Reichert to WTVH meant conspicuously less airtime for longtime morning and noon news host Keith Kobland, who nevertheless remained a good soldier until Reichert left the market in 2007. Perhaps most damaging to the WTVH news reputation was the temporary surrender of the 5 p.m. news block to Central New York Live!, a 2003 quasi-infotainment show hosted by Donna Adamo (who had to surrender her newsroom credentials to host segments featuring paid interviews), but by then Granite was past the point of caring.
Although it’s unfortunate that the WTVH newsroom is no more, at least Channel 3 is no stranger when it comes to providing other stations with newscasts. In June 1995 WSYT-Channel 68 began a 10 p.m. show with broadcast and production functions handled by WSTM, which made room for the 68 set by removing the old Channel 3 lanes used in the 1970s-era Bud Hedinger local-yokel series Bowling for Dollars. Back then newcomers like Betsy Sykes and Amy Kellogg held anchor chairs alongside veterans Joe Zone and Chuck Plumpton. Then WTVH took over production chores for the Channel 68 news from 2000 to 2006, with Mulcahy as anchor—until he was untethered by Boom Boom. But payback’s a switch; soon after getting rehired by Channel 3 (who first let him go in 1997) in January 2005, Mulcahy anchored a rival 10 p.m. newscast on WSTM’s sister station WSTQ-Channel 14. The competition must have been withering: The following year WTVH ended the down-the-block relationship with Channel 68, dumping the 10 p.m. shift plus a morning news hour.
Hmmmm, maybe there’s something in the water on Broadcasters Row. For the sake of comparison, drive way down James Street and head for Bridge Street in DeWitt, home to the ratings-leading newscasts of WSYR-Channel 9. Sure, it’s been 40 years since the station dallied with importing out-of-town names to make a ratings splash (who besides Rod “Don’t Ever Call Me Ron” Wood remembers the days of Solon Gray?) yet Channel 9 has long since realized the wisdom of sticking with a good poker hand. From Wood’s veteran presence to reliable long-termers both present (like Dan Cummings and Carrie Lazarus) and past (Mike Price, the late Nancy Duffy), plus newcomers making a favorable viewer impression such as Jennifer Lewke’s “Real Deal” consumer investigation series, WSYR’s newscasts have been as comfortably reliable as a pair of slippers that you’d never part with.
It seems unlikely that the WTVH folks who have been dismissed will be able to comment on this mess until their severance packages and non-compete contractual clauses have run their course. For now, alas, Syracusans have one less trusted news source to disseminate information, as WTVH’s exit from the reportage base leaves behind the most sizable news hole since the wall came tumbling down between The Herald-Journal and The Post-Standard. Visitors at this summer’s New York State Fair will also note that void: There won’t be any more Chevy Court live remotes from the WTVH news team, with fairgoers no longer able to size up the height-challenged (but never talent-challenged) attributes of Adamo, sportscaster Kevin Maher and meteorologist Tom Hauf. To recall Walter Cronkite’s long-running sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.”
The Play Lady: Jean Daugherty spent most of her professional life at WTVH-Channel, most memorably as a player in the Magic Toy Shop children’s program, and then as a producer of award-winning documentaries about Central New York.
David Muir: Onetime intern at Channel 5, and admirer of Ron Curtis, Muir now works for ABC News, as anchor for World News Saturday and co-anchor for Primetime, and as a general assignment reporter.