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Can a CBS corporate ‘golden boy’ fix Channel 3’s sinking ratings by getting you to watch?

Will young people watch TV news?

That’s the question facing new KYW general manager Brien Kennedy, whose revamp of the perennially-fourth-rated TV station in town saw a longtime evening news team kicked to the curb following wholesale job changes on both the sales and news sides of the CBS-owned station.

Kennedy was described to Billy Penn as a “corporate darling” credited with boosting ratings in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he turned another network-owned station, WCCO, into a ratings winner, particularly in “the demo” — viewers aged 25-54. But Minnesota is a long way away, both in distance (1,200 or so miles) and in size, 15th in the nation compared to Philadelphia, the no. 4 market in the country. The rewards are great if he’s able to make staid KYW more competitive.

Then again, he’s trying to reverse losses at  a station that’s been hemorrhaging viewers and facing the seemingly-impervious Action News, as well as Comcast’s NBC10 in its hometown. So the risks are great, as well.

Greetings from Minneapolis

KYW’s PR team declined to make Kennedy available for an interview with Billy Penn, so we’re short on specifics from the horse’s mouth about what he’s planning. But it’s worth a look at Kennedy’s experience at WCCO, the CBS-owned television station in Minneapolis.

“(Kennedy) came in to ‘CCO and did what it sounds like he’s doing in Philly,” said Brian Lambert, who covers media for MinnPost. “He evaporated the sales staff, got through quite a few people in the newsroom, including a news director. When he first arrived, there was a lot of cheesy rah-rah team stuff…

“But by the time he left, he had significantly improved both the revenue and the ratings,” Lambert continued, “And he became a bit of a golden boy with the corporate office.”

What that means, in real terms: Kennedy was able to engineer a turnaround, giving his station a lead in the ratings (especially with younger viewers).

Now, CBS corporate is hoping he can work that magic again.

The Brien Kennedy Way

News that Kennedy was named General Manager at CBS came via the end of a gossip item in the Daily News on April 7, 2015. A month later, news director Susan Schiller announced she was leaving the station after 14 years running its editorial operations.

Kennedy has made wholesale changes on both the sales and editorial sides of CBS3, multiple sources who’ve worked in executive positions at Philadelphia stations tell Billy Penn — all of which are totally normal for an executive desperately trying to reverse staggering losses of audience.

The three longtime faces of the station’s evening newscast — Chris May, Beasely Reece and Kathy Orr — were unceremoniously dumped in July. One of the fired personalities confirmed to Billy Penn that there was, basically, no warning.

“We came into work, and the assistant news director was waiting for us,” the dismissed member of the trio remembered, “and asked us to come into Brien’s office, and then he delivered the news, and we walked out, and that was pretty much it.”

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Kennedy has made his desires plain. He’s installed a series of signs around the station’s Center City offices, exhorting employees toward at least one goal that looks, frankly, unreachable: Unseating either 6 or 10 for no. 1 or 2 in all timeslots.

That won’t be easy.

All about those dollars

Let’s call it like it is: Channel 3’s news division is in trouble. According to ratings information provided by a competing station, KYW-3 was carrying a 1.2 rating in the 25-54 demographic for its 6 a.m. newscasts from September 2012 to May 2013, good for an 8.3 percent share of the market. That was good enough for either third or fourth place, depending on whether you counted the demographic (about which advertisers care the most) or the share of total viewers. Channel 6 was no. 1 at 6 a.m., with a 3.1 in the demo and a whopping 20.6 share. Channel 10 had a 1.3 rating and an 8.5 share, and Fox 29 had a 1.4 rating in the demo and a 9.6 share. The numbers look much the same later in the day, but the mornings are something that corporate owners closely track — all of Philly’s TV stations are owned by the networks that air moneymakers like Today and Good Morning America.

Fast forward to the same period and the same timeslot in 2015, and things look bleak for KYW. Channel 3 drew a .6 rating in the demo — a 50 percent drop — and a share of 4. The other stations’ positions varied little: Channel 6 was no. 1, again. And that’s what Kennedy faces.

“Channel 3 truly, for the past year and a half… their ratings have been off a cliff. They have some serious challenges,” said a source at a rival station who declined to be identified. “So they made a ton of talent changes. That really is par for the course. A new GM is going to do that, particularly when they’re struggling as much as Channel 3 is.”

The pressure is greater because advertising dollars — long fleeing from newspaper pages — have begun migrating away from television as well. So the stations are fighting over diminishing returns.

“The overall TV marketplace spending, the ad dollars spent on the broadcast stations… Those numbers have been going down,” the source said. “You’re starting taking less of a smaller pie. It’s material.”

But Kennedy deserves credit for trying.

“Being number one or number two here, you’d be proud of that accomplishment,” a veteran broadcast executive said. “TV news is older-skewing.”

From the ‘Big story on Action News’ to Snapchat

But of course that begs a rather large question: Do young people in the coveted TV “demo” get news from TV? For that, we turned to the Pew Research Center, where we put the question to Jesse Holcomb, an associate director of journalism research.

“When it comes to younger audiences, the data all paint the same picture,” Holcomb said via email. “They’re not watching as much local TV news as older folks are.”

Specifically, Holcomb says Pew has tracked whether US adults ‘regularly’ watch local TV news. For 18-29 year-olds, the number was 42 percent in 2006. Just six years later, in 2012, it was down to 28 percent.

What about people who just catch TV news occasionally? Pew rephrased the question in 2013, asking whether the different age groups “often or sometimes” watch local TV news. That got a better response: Some 53 percent of 18-29 year olds said they often or sometimes watch local TV news. But take it with a grain of salt; that was lower than any other age group they measured.

Now, Philly’s stations have gotten a tad younger. Channel 6’s popular meteorologist, Adam Joseph, is just 27 37. Channel 10’s Sheena Parveen is a reported 27, as well; meanwhile Fox 29’s Alex Holley, Mike Jerrick’s new co-host and a newly-minted Sexy Single, is in her 20s, as well.

So far, Kennedy has hired or installed:

  • Alexandra Hoff, a general assignment reporter, on August 6
  • Lauren Casey, weather, also on August 6
  • Meisha Johnson, traffic reporter, on June 16
  • And he’s replaced the May/Reece/Orr trio with Ukee Washington, Jessica Dean and Kate Bilo.

But the big story for Brian Kennedy is still this: Can he really beat Action News and Comcast’s Channel 10?

After all, he’s up against an incredibly strong no. 1 in the market.

“Channel 6 is an anomaly in the country, really. There a few other places like that, but here, it’s very parochial,” our longtime TV news source said. “You’ll hear ‘my grandfather watched Action News, my father…’ So viewers literally grew up in the house and it’s hard to break that comfortable habit of putting Action News on as your news source.”

And Channel 10 is riding on a few years of investment from its parent company, Comcast. News Director Anzio Williams, who joined the station in 2012 from Sacramento, solidified the station’s ratings to a seemingly impervious no. 2 slot. And Comcast’s investments continue; the station will move from its longtime home along City Avenue to its own space in the Comcast II tower in late 2017 or early 2018.

And, as one veteran broadcast executive recalled for BP the story of a research project where one of the respondents said they’d stopped watching local TV news — but when he did, he turned to Action News.

“‘You used to watch Channel 6, what happened?”’ the source said the respondent was asked.

The response?

“I went away for a while. But Action News is a lot like the Catholic Church. Your parents take you there. You’re cynical, you fall away, but you come back.”

(Featured image via Twitter / minnesota.cbslocal.com)

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