At WKBW, a struggle to balance stature and freshness

WKBW-7 ‘Eyewitness News’ has been stuck in third place among competitors in the Buffalo television market, with WGRZ-2 expected to lose the region’s top spot to WIVB-4 shortly.  While WKBW is still in third place, their audience size has been growing faster than any other station in the market.

The iconic brand has been home to longtime local news legends like Irv Weinstein and Tony Farina. But in recent years, with a slew of new young talent, the station’s managers are wondering if fully leveraging the station’s storied brand requires fully leveraging longtime local personalities with the universal name recognition that the newcomers flatly lack — like Linda Pellegrino, the 20 year host of AM Buffalo, the region’s leading morning talk show; and Keith Radford, who has led the nightly broadcast since Weinstein’s retirement in 1998.

Weatherman Mike Randell has been joined by Don Paul, the longtime WIVB meteorologist. With Andy Parker, formerly of WGRZ, the three bring a trifecta of experience and surely make WKBW’s weather team the most recognizable in the market.

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WKBW-Channel 7’s weather team (from right to left): Autumn Lewandowski, Andy Parker, Aaron Mentkowski, and Mike Randell.

Since new owners aquired the station in 2014, they have been re-positioning the brand aggressively, bringing on energetic young talent to the sports department and the morning show. Katie Morse (formerly of Time Warner Cable News) and Ed Drantch (formerly of WIVB), are making impressive audience gains.

One longtime local media observer charcterize’s WKBW’s strategy to a ‘puppy dog.’

“Right now, they don’t want WIVB or WGRZ to fear them and adjust their own programs in response, so they are playing it cool. All of a sudden, probably by next May sweeps, the station is going to be on the brink of overtaking both the other stations in audience size,” he posits. “They have been innovative, they have put in the resources, and they are ready to pounce.”

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Mike Randell has long been a cornerstone of the WKBW brand.

“The one area that WKBW needs to get better at is fully leveraging the strength of thier longtime personalities that have 100% name recognition in the market. That’s enormous clout, political capital, and influence that can’t be cultivated overnight. I hope they don’t piss away value like that,” he adds.

The media critic notes that Linda Pellegrino’s pervasive name recognition, stellar interviewing skills, and dynamic personality have not been fully leveraged — either for the purpose of audience growth, content production, or revenue growth.

“Linda’s platform has a lot more revenue potential, and advertisers would be willing to more fully utilize it if it were marketed more aggressively,” he says. “She is household name and the audience trusts her. That’s gold to advertisers in a market like Buffalo.”

Another longtime fan of the station says that she worries that the station devalues longtime personalities who give the brand its iconic stature. To lose that, would be to lose the station, she argues.

“What Ed and Katie have done in the morning has been very innovative and has created a lot of energy at the station, which is awesome and where they are getting their momentum. But if they had Tony Farina doing a weekly investigative segment, it would project the history and heft of the station’s journalistic stature, without having to say it,” she suggests.

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Linda Pellegrino with Keith Radford on AM Buffalo.

WKBW-TV premiered as ABC’s new Buffalo affiliate when it went on the air on November 30, 1958. The station’s studios were originally located at 1420 Main Street, and remained there until it moved to its current location at 7 Broadcast Plaza in 1978.

Many see the station’s vast surplus of downtown studio space could be its competitive advantage, allowing the physical space for more innovative, more unique, and more engaging programing relative to its competitors.

The station’s original owner Churchill Communications sold it to Capital Cities Broadcasting in 1961. CapCities would serve as WKBW-TV’s longest-tenured owner, owning it and its radio sister for 25 years, and the station would reach its peak during Capital Cities’ ownership, even producing children’s programing like Rocketship 7 and The Commander Tom Show from the 1960s to the 1980s.

When Capital Cities merged with ABC in 1986, it sold WKBW-TV to Queen City Broadcasting instead of becoming an ABC owned-and-operated station. At that point, WKBW radio was sold to Price Communications and had its call letters changed to WWKB, now owned by Entercom Communications.

In late 1993, Granite Broadcasting acquired a 45 percent minority stake in WKBW-TV from Queen City Broadcasting. A year-and-a-half later, in June 1995, Granite bought the remaining 55% interest in the station. Granite owned and operated the station until July of 2014, when the E. W. Scripps Company completed its acquisition of WKBW-TV as well as MyNetworkTV affiliate WMYD in Detroit, Michigan from Granite Broadcasting for $110 million.

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