Change comes to NYC TV

New York City woke up to a surprise today: WPIX GM Betty Ellen Berlamino was fired, while lead anchor Jim Watkins won’t be renewed when his contract is up this August, reported the New York Daily News’ Richard Huff. Jerry Kersting, Tribune Broadcasting’s new president, will run the station until a replacement is found.

“For several weeks I have been in the process of evaluating the management teams across our television stations, and today I decided it was time to make a change at WPIX - general manager Betty Ellen Berlamino has left the station,” Kersting said in a memo to the staff on Monday.

Insiders and industry-watchers alike were surprised at Berlamino’s dismissal: Everyone knew and liked her. She was a fixture in the NY market, having run PIX since 2000 and worked at the station since 1994.

Besides Berlamino and Watkins, about a dozen off-camera employees were laid off about a week ago, reports Huff.

Tribune has been trying to improve the fifth-rated station’s fortunes. Last fall, WPIX introduced the market’s only 6:30 p.m. newscast, anchored by Watkins and Kaity Tong. Tribune has rebranded the station to have a more local, street-like feel.  In February, the station hired controversial but colorful commentator Larry Mendte, who was fired from KYW Philadelphia in 2008 after admitting to hacking into co-anchor Alycia Lane’s email account. Most recently, the station hosted a cash-grab event during the 10 p.m. news, with viewers getting the opportunity to enter a vault and frantically grab as much cash as possible in a limited amount of time. That stunt met with some disapproval from station insiders who would prefer the station stick with pure news, reported Huff.

Kersting, who was promoted to president early last month, has said he plans to shake up Tribune’s local newscasts but has not specified how. Kersting and most of Tribune’s upper brass come from the ranks of radio behemoth Clear Channel, and aren’t shy about creating stunt programming for the sake of attracting audiences. Tribune’s executive team also frequently returns to its radio roots when developing new projects: currently, the company is shooting TV pilots with radio personalities Bill Cunningham and Bubba the Love Sponge, and it had some success with a televised local broadcast of The Bob & Tom Show on Tribune’s Fox affiliate WXIN Indianapolis.

WPIX isn’t the only New York station to see some changes. On Monday, WNBC New York named Michael Jack, president/GM of WRC Washington, president/GM of NBC’s flagship station. The station’s previous prez/GM Tom O’Brien, who joined the station in April 2008, will become EVP of NBC’s Nonstop Network, focusing on the station group’s digital channels. NBC’s Nonstop Network, a mix of entertainment and news programming that airs on the NBC-owned TV stations’ digital channels, plans to expand efforts to Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

It’s been a rough few years for WNBC, which once was the dominant station in the market. It still leads the DMA in revenues, according to BIA/Kelsey, but the station has seen steep ratings drops across nearly all of its dayparts. It’s replaced much of its acquired syndicated programming with less expensive locally-produced shows — such as LX New York, rated last in its time period — to mixed results.

In fact, both WNBC and WPIX are apparently considering outsourcing their local sports reporting to save money, reports the NY Post’s Michael Starr. Starr says SNY, a local cable sports channel, is in talks with both WNBC and WPIX about providing the stations with sports reports.

As Starr says: “It could be another nail in the coffin of the way traditional local newscasts are presented.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for more than 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for The Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences (G.E.M.A.). She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997 - September 2002.