Remote control: CBS 2 boss says New York always called the shots
Second of two parts.
So who’s really in charge of what’s going on these days at WBBM-Channel 2?
Is it Bruno Cohen, 59, the owlish president and general manager of the CBS-owned station who took over a money-losing also-ran in 2008 and turned it into a profitable contender? The man who brought Chicago legends Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson back together and reunited them on the anchor desk?
Or is it his bosses in New York, who unloaded a bunch of second-stringers from WCBS-TV (including Kate Sullivan, Steve Bartelstein and Megan Glaros) on their station here and forced Cohen to cancel his pet project, Monsters and Money in the Morning, after just seven months?
A fair answer to that would probably be both. But it’s a credit to Cohen’s candor and his manageable ego that he doesn’t try to diminish the influence of his corporate masters. “New York has always called the shots,” he says without sarcasm. “CBS has owned this place since the transmitter went on.” No wonder Jacobson, who first started working at CBS 2 in 1963, calls Cohen “more frank and open than any other general manager I’ve ever known."
Here, in the second half of our conversation last week, Cohen reflects on some of his station’s high and lows:
Q. You’ve had three different morning shows since you got here. What’s going on there?
A. We have more work to do. We made an effort at a very alternative type of broadcast in the mornings [Monsters and Money], and did not have traction with the audience in a reasonable period of time. So we’ve returned to a more traditional format, albeit recast with some new people that we have a lot of confidence in, and we’re doing better. But we’re substantially behind in the morning. We have a long way to go.
From a business perspective it’s important that we grow in the morning because there’s dollars available in the morning that we can’t really tap unless we’re more competitive. I like what we’re doing in the morning in this format, and the audience seems to be accepting it more quickly than I had anticipated. On a percentage basis, we’re doubling and in certain cases tripling the number [from a year ago]. But it was from an extraordinarily small base, so I don’t want to make more of it than there is.
Q. You brought back Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson with a lot of fanfare. Are you disappointed that they haven’t improved the ratings at 6pm?
A. It’s very important to our overall news strategy to have Bill & Walter with us right now. Because they give us a tie to a time when the CBS brand in Chicago was very powerful, and they signal a commitment to a quality of journalism that we continue to aspire to. So I think they’re very good for CBS 2 — regardless of what the number is at 6 o’clock. We think we should be doing better on all of our newscasts. I wish their number was higher, but it isn’t at this point.
Q. You don’t see it as a rejection by the audience?
A. No, not at all. At 5pm and 6pm, what we’ve got are smaller audiences for news and very slow pace of change in audience performance in those time periods traditionally. All I hear is that people are glad that Bill & Walter are back and happy to see them on. I also think that Bill & Walter may have been a little creaky out of the gate, getting used to being back on TV on a daily basis and working with each other. To me, the viewing experience of seeing their newscast now is much more comfortable. They’re much more on their game and enjoying doing it, and I think that’s a good sign for growth in that time period. I’m committed to them, and glad they’re on our air and associated with the station.
Q. What’s the deal with Kate Sullivan?
A. We have to take advantage of what our corporation can do for us when we can. When we had the opportunity to bring in someone like Kate, who had developed her big market experience in New York and who’s clearly an asset for us, we took advantage of it. I remember you asking me at one point: “Is New York calling the shots?” The answer is: New York has always called the shots. CBS has owned this place since the transmitter went on. All the general managers here work at the pleasure of CBS. But when they have ways to help us, whether it’s through the leverage of buying syndicated programming, or being able to move very high potential on-air people inside of our company and take advantage of opportunities we have, we seize that.
Q. Do you honestly believe that people are watching your news because of her?
A. I think [they’re watching] because of how well she fits into the kind of program that we’re doing, and innately because of her own talent as a news anchor. Look, as a general category, there’s not a great track record of people breaking through and being accepted in Chicago. It usually takes decades for someone to be accepted on the air. Kate Sullivan has been here since September, and we’ve changed our rank in our late news for the first time in 20 years.
Q. Who has helped you achieve this turnaround?
A. Our performance is really based on mostly the same people who were here when I got here. Obviously, Kate is new, and [news director] Jeff Kiernan came two years ago. But by and large, our reporters, our behind-the-scenes people in the newsroom, our key managers, our sales department, the people in our promo department, our technicians, our photographers, our editors — these are all the same people who have been getting thumped pretty badly here in Chicago for a long time. One of the things that’s palpable when you’re around this TV station these days is how much more confidence they have in what we’re doing. And I think, from where I sit, how that confidence is being reflected on the air in what we’re doing every day.
Q. How does that translate to your audience?
A. If they are longtime committed news viewers, I think they get a sense of continuity, a sense that this is a news operation that has a lot of institutional knowledge that accrues to the context in which we do our reporting. To the extent that people are comfortable with people they’ve seen on the air a long time, like Pam Zekman, I think that’s meaningful to them.
What it means on a night-to-night basis is that we have experienced, talented people at all levels of this television station and have for a long time. But they’re collaborating at a different level today than they were two, three years ago. And that’s coming through in terms of the overall quality of the viewing experience and the quality of the news and information on the air.
Q. For a TV executive, you’re unusually forthcoming, you know?
A. I don’t really have anything to hide. And I don’t have much to spin. When we’re trying to do something that’s as difficult as turning around this kind of a TV station in a market that has so many strong competitors, you have to take some risks. Some of what we’ve done has worked and some of it hasn’t.