Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Waterman Way

It took me a long time to ratchet up the nerve to write this one.  But I think the last year has shown the steady slide underway at one of the strongest broadcasters in Fort Myers that actually started long before their mind blowing decision to show Craig Wolf, an employee of 17 years, the door a little more than a year ago.

While WBBH remains a competitive force in the market, a series of personnel decisions has left it vulnerable.  The comedy of errors began five years ago when they left popular morning weatherman Jim Syoen walk over money.  That decision precipitated a slow steady decline in their morning numbers and forced management to flip-flop Robert Van Winkle and Haley Webb and then switch the pair again after the move failed miserably.

Wolf anchored the news for WBBH in Fort Myers and was in large part along with co-anchor Kelly Burns, a major reason why the NBC station became competitive with CBS powerhouse WINK TV.  Television news is a cruel and heartless business.  Waterman Broadcasting exemplifies the worst of those traits.

I know this because against my better judgment I went to work there in the fall of 2006.  I lasted four.  At Waterman Broadcasting isn’t about good journalism, it isn’t about good storytelling, it’s about being aggressive to the point of obnoxiousness.  It's about the art of the oversell, and above all it’s about ruling the staff, made up mostly of young impressionable journalists, through fear and intimidation.

The station does one thing extremely well.  It's investigation team is top notch.  They constantly break great stories and win awards doing it.  But the big I-Team stories appear only in sweeps, four times a year.  The day-in-day out in over-hype, over-sale, takes a lot of luster over what their investigative team accomplishes.
Darrel Adams relishes and encourages a dog eat dog approach to the running of his newsroom.  Those that hammer back and stand up to the unending bullying and brow-beatings by his management team will rise through the ranks and survive.  Those that don’t are thrown by the wayside regardless of how good a producer or reporter they are.  It’s a savage place and the strategy worked as they steadily ate into WINK's massive ratings lead turning it into a two station slug-fest.  WINK three years ago responded by beefing up their news operation and WBBH failed to take advantage of its staff size which it enjoyed for several years to wrest the top spot away from WINK.

The thing that made Craig Wolf stand out is that he refused to part-take in the mind games encouraged by Adams.  Wolf just wanted to do good television and beat the competition.  I think this was partly his undoing.  He’s over 50 and he’s making good money and put his family before his job, hence his decision to leave the 11 p.m. news a few years back.  That made him vulnerable.  Ratting out the station for its God awful working conditions to OSHA didn't help and that led to his ouster.

But the other show dropped in less than a year when Len Jennings, another straight forward good guy, who shined when he was moved into Wolf's spot, announced he was heading to greener pastures.  Len's opportunity to go to KMBC in Kansas City represented a professional coup.  Suddenly WBBH is suffering through to major departures and the aftermath of a failed weather staff shake-up.

The final twist comes with the return of Krista Fogelsong.  The one time FOX anchor in the market left with her tail tucked between her legs.  She overestimated her value to the station and overplayed her contract demands while a strong replacement sat in the wings, Amy Wegmann.  Fogelsong was shown the door and the station didn't miss a beat when they promoted Wegmann.

Now WBBH is hoping Fogelsong will stop the morning ratings slide.  Call me skeptical, bitter, or narrow-minded but I don't see it. WINK is coming and coming on strong.  And according to Nielson, WFTX, my station, won the key demos in the late evening news race.  Where will this all stand in two years or so.  I have no clue.  But if FOX can get its prime time programming sorted out.  It's going to be a three station race and the third station won't be Waterman's bastard step-child, WZVN.

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