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CBS Scandal, Local Fallout

After CBS aired its infamous 60 Minutes
report questioning President George W. Bush's service in
the Texas Air National Guard, WKRC Cincinnati Vice President and General
Manager Chris Sehring was deluged by thousands of e-mails. Last week, after an
independent investigation resulted in four CBS News employees losing their
jobs, Sehring's inbox was relatively quiet.

“It didn't get as much reaction as I would have thought,” he says.

Since the firestorm that followed last September's broadcast, many CBS
station GMs have been bombarded by viewer complaints and protests from
organized campaigns. Once the four-month investigation was made public Jan. 10,
local station execs seemed satisfied, particularly by the network's new
reporting guidelines. “CBS delivered on its promise to be tough and
thorough,” says Henry Maldonado, VP/GM of Post-Newsweek's WKMG Orlando,
Fla. (CBS alerted stations about a half-hour before it posted the report on CBS
News' Web site.)

Doreen Wade, head of the CBS affiliate board and president of Freedom
Broadcasting, says “CBS took the findings to heart. They resolved to have
better precautionary measures in place for the future. I think CBS News will be
a stronger organization.”

But locally, stations are evaluating how the scandal has impacted

Viewer Reaction

One tangible effect: In many markets, CBS
Evening News
ratings slipped during November sweeps, compared to
2003. Clear Channel-owned WKRC, a CBS affiliate, saw its
Evening News marks fall 9% to a 6.8 HH
rating/12 share, according to Nielsen. “Many people have the misconception
that somehow Dan Rather is operating out of our Cincinnati studios,” says
Sehring. “It stung a little bit. Hopefully, those people will come back.”

Out of 56 metered markets, 38 reported drops in Evening News ratings in November. (One market, Tulsa,
Okla., was not metered in 2003.) Of course, other factors, like lead-in
programming and a station's overall strength, can affect ratings. But many
CBS stations are seeing improved marks for local newscasts, and the network is
No. 1 in prime time. It isn't an issue of red states and blue states, either:
New Orleans, La., Tulsa, Okla., Dayton, Ohio, Greensboro, N.C. and
Raleigh/Durham, N.C., all in states President Bush won in the election, were
the five highest-rated Evening News markets
in November.

No shortcuts

In Kansas City, Mo., another red state, Evening
is actually thriving. In November, the newscast surged 24% to a
7.7 rating/13 share. It fits with KCTV's overall growth across dayparts. In
November, for the first time in 13 years, the station won 10 p.m. news. Still,
says VP/GM Kirk Black, the report yields valuable reminders for newsrooms.
“It doesn't matter if you are working on Evening
or the KCTV 6 p.m. news. There are no shortcuts,” says Black,
a member of the affiliate board.

Advertiser backlash hasn't been a major problem. Stations typically
have only one local spot to sell during Evening
their clients are already distanced from the story. Still,
some e-mail protesters did target station advertisers. In Orlando, Maldonado
says he heard from a few advertisers, but hasn't lost any business. It might
have been more of a leverage tactic. Says Maldonado: “They wanted to make
sure they had my attention.”