by AARON BARNHART
In the first five minutes of this story, you'll learn the shocking details behind the TV station that toppled market leader KMBC!
If that teaser sounds familiar, then you've probably been watching KCTV, Channel 5, lately. Join the crowd. For the first time in more than a decade, KCTV is sitting pretty atop the 10 p.m. Nielsen ratings at the end of a November sweeps month.
Though final results won't be in until this morning, Channel 5 was comfortably ahead of Channel 9, holding a two-share-point advantage through Tuesday. (One share point is equivalent to 1 percentage of homes watching TV.) And KMBC, which remained No. 1 at 5 and 6 p.m., will probably lose its lead in morning news to WDAF, Channel 4.
Buoyed by strong prime-time programming from CBS and its high-energy news, KCTV has achieved a remarkable comeback that few would have predicted three years ago when the station's new boss, Kirk Black, rode into town.
“When I walked in the door in August 2001, we had lost 45 percent of our news audience in the past five years,” Black said Tuesday. “We had problems. And I said that we were going to work a plan like no one has worked it.”
Thanks to an amped-up promotion budget from parent company Meredith Corp. and a newsroom run by his hand-picked lieutenant Regent Ducas, KCTV is surging. Its ratings are up 25 percent year-to-year while KMBC is way down, despite a modest revival of ABC's prime-time schedule.
KCTV's 10 p.m. newscast — an in-your-face nightly spree of crime, accidents, sexual perversity and wild video — looks nothing like the newscast it used to be. Almost none of the anchors or reporters on the air in 2001 is around now; they've been replaced by younger and seemingly hungrier talent (notable exceptions include anchor Dave Helling and dayside veteran Liana Joyce).
Longtime viewers were not shy about expressing their disgust and outrage as Channel 5 transformed itself. On Gateway City Radio, an Internet bulletin board popular with local broadcasters, one anti-KCTV partisan this week described Channel 5 as “Jerry Springer TV,” while many others used descriptions that are unfit to print.
The complaints seem to peak during the three-times-yearly sweeps periods, when KCTV heavily promotes its most eye-grabbing news pieces.
In February, Channel 5 aired a four-night investigative series based on a sting it had conducted of men it said tried to solicit sex illegally on the Internet. Critics howled, but ratings went through the roof on those nights. And while KMBC won the overall ratings that month, the tide was starting to turn.
By October, “KCTV5 News at 10” was beating KMBC's late news regularly.
“This is not a flash in the pan,” Black said. “We started to close the gap (with KMBC) every month. We saw the gap shrinking, and in July we realized, hey, we might win this thing.”
KCTV's win may be interpreted as a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. The rising tide is CBS, which trounced the other networks in November on the strength of its hit crime dramas: the “CSI” shows and “Without a Trace.” It was the most-watched network among 18-to-49-year-olds, the first time CBS has finished No. 1 among that prized viewer group since 1980.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, CBS chief Leslie Moonves called it a “milestone” and a “watershed moment” that had put its affiliates in their best competitive position in 10 years.
By contrast, the ABC network has been dragging down its affiliates for years with its poor programming choices. That has begun to turn around under new leadership, and ABC's new hit “Desperate Housewives” has given KMBC a big lift on Sunday nights. Another hit ABC show, “Lost,” airs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, but by 10 p.m. much of the audience watching that program has tuned away.
Research supplied by KMBC shows that its ratings leap 30 percent to 40 percent at 10 p.m. — enough to make it competitive but not enough to stop KCTV's juggernaut.
Black, however, can hardly be accused of riding the coattails of CBS, any more than KMBC can be said to be coasting at 5 and 6 p.m. on its huge lead-in from “Dr. Phil” and “Oprah.” Nielsen data shows that KCTV has become one of the top-performing CBS stations across the country. And KCTV's ratings are way up at other times of the day, especially 4 and 5 p.m., when CBS programs are nowhere to be seen.
Some research suggests viewers start to tune away from Channel 5 after those vaunted “first five minutes,” a conclusion Black disputes. But one thing is undeniable: Kansas City viewers are some of the most voracious consumers of local news in the country, having made KCTV and KMBC top-rated in their respective network groups.
At WDAF, ratings for its morning news are up double digits as well, giving Fox 4 a slight edge over KMBC through Tuesday. Double-digit growth buoyed KSHB, Channel 41, at both 5 and 6 p.m. Its 5 o'clock newscast, following on the heels of Ken Jennings' daily smackdowns on “Jeopardy!” was up an eye-popping 30 percent year-to-year.
Success has allowed KCTV's Black to pull off a career feat that many once thought impossible: He survived the entire tumultuous reign of his boss, former Meredith Broadcast Group president (and onetime Channel 9 sales manager) Kevin O'Brien, who fired all the other general managers in the 13-station chain during his three years running the group.
O'Brien, who didn't hire Black, was terminated last month for violating the company's equal-opportunity employment policy. Newsroom insiders say a cheer went up when his firing was announced.
Black said he always had a terrific working relationship with O'Brien, and Ducas said that O'Brien, who could monitor every Meredith station from satellite feeds at his office in Las Vegas, “left us alone because he thought we were doing a great job.” And to those who fondly remember the olden days, Ducas points out that Channel 5 had a long history of aggressive reporting before he and Black came along. Its best-known reporter was investigative bulldog Stan Cramer, who thrived off targets putting a hand up to the camera and slamming the door in his face.