High ratings, low rates

At the top of every newscast, announcer Scott Chapin's voiceover tells WNEP-TV viewers that they're tuned into "The News Station." Viewers in northeastern and central Pennsylvania seem to agree. In more than 20 years, no "Newswatch 16" newscast on station wnep has ever lost its time slot.

In May, Nielsen household ratings for the 6 p.m. edition tallied a remarkable 20.6 rating/42 share in the 17-county Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., DMA. But that pales in comparison to the February ratings, when wnep-tv's flagship evening 6 p.m. news was the highest-rated early fringe newscast in the nation's top 100 markets with a 24.8 rating/44 share.

Together, the ratings of rivals WBRE-TV and WYOU(TV) news shows can not match wnep's numbers. In the May book, wbre's 28 Eyewitness News, received an 8.6 rating/18 share at 6 p.m. and wyou's 22 Action News got a 3.5 rating/7 share. Nexstar Broadcast Group, which owns wbre, provides wyou's news under a "shared services agreement," now in its third year. The two stations share news management and off-air personnel. All on-air talent are Nexstar employees, too, but work exclusively for only one of the stations.

Today, with wnep's news lead at its highest in a decade, the station is finalizing plans for an all-news cable channel on Adelphia Cable's Northeastern Pennsylvania systems, which reaches nearly 95,000 homes. Wnep account executives have described the channel in terms of combining text and graphics "Bloomberg style" with a squeezed-back replay of the most recent "Newswatch 16" show.

RenéLaSpina, WNEP-TV president/general manager, who has only spoken to the local press once the last two years, did not respond to a request for an interview.

LaSpina has not released any information about the station's plans, and station manager Craig Jahelka and news director John Wessling refer all inquiries back to LaSpina.

Jahelka is a former WNEP-TV reporter/anchor who was news director of WREG-TV, Memphis. Both WNEP-TV and WREG-TV are owned by The New York Times Co. Wessling was formerly news director of WBTW(TV), Florence-Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Wessling and Jahelka have recently begun tweaking wnep-tv's news coverage and have been especially aggressive in the use of the station's helicopter-the only one in the market. One element of every 6 p.m. newscast usually originates from the chopper each weekday. They have assigned two of the station's top anchor/reporters to the Luzerne County beat, which is arch rival wbre-tv's home base.

"I'm fairly intrigued about what they've done recently to make all of their [news] programming more entertaining," says Mike Yanuzzi, vice president/general manager of Pegasus Broadcast Television's WOLF-TV, a FOX affiliate which has aired the wnep-tv-produced 10 p.m. newscast since 1991.

Yanuzzi notes that wnep's 5:30 to 7 a.m. weekday news-which usually has a 50 to 60 share-is more like a morning radio talk show than a traditional newscast. Viewer-participation contests are regular features during the 6 and 11 p.m. shows' sports segments.

"Viewers are usually loyal to programs, not stations. Ch. 16 comes as close as you'll find anywhere in the country for loyalty to a station, similar to what radio stations have," says Phil Condron, who owns Condron & Co., an advertising agency in Scranton.

"You're able to achieve appreciable frequency fairly quickly, because the audience is so repetitive and so loyal," he adds.

Three decades ago, wyou's predecessor, WDAU-TV, ruled the market, regularly getting 48 shares, the station's longtime news director/anchor Tom Powell told The Scranton Times in a recent interview. WNEP-TV was in third place then.

In 1978, Elden Hale Jr., who became news director and later served as general manager, completely turned wnep-tv's news operations around, according a longtime former station staffer.

"His original concept was, 'Do a story more people-oriented,' and his buzz phrase was 'Tell me why we care,'" notes Frank Andrews, who spent 18 years at WNEP-TV as a reporter, anchor and news director. Andrews is now executive producer of wyou's news.

Powell says Hale's aggressive news promotion helped reposition the station as "The News Station." In one case, Hale plastered the market with "Gary is coming" signs-including one on the side of an elephant in Scranton's Nay Aug Park Zoo-to promote the arrival of news anchor Gary Essex, a former major market weathercaster.

"He made it so big that everybody had to watch to see who this Gary Essex guy was and when he finally came on the air, it was: 'What's the big deal?'" Andrews says.

The 1980 acquisition of "Skycam 16" cemented wnep-tv's news leadership. The original Skycam was a leased, two-seat helicopter. It gave wnep quick access to all parts of the far-flung DMA, and it was a priceless promotion tool. "Newswatch 16 is everywhere," became a station slogan.

In June 1984, wnep bought a higher range Bell Jet Ranger from WMAQ-TV Chicago. Right after the new Skycam was outfitted with a new antenna that improved live broadcasts, a mental patient escaped from police, stole a linen-service truck and began driving wildly through Scranton.

News director R. Paul Stueber, serving the first of two tours of duty at the station, ordered Skycam up. Pilot Jack Ruland, reporter Bob Reynolds and photographer Tom Hovey followed the chase live on-air. This was the first chase of its kind broadcast live.

Other wnep firsts included moving the weather forecasts to an outdoor set.

Although it is the 51st Nielsen market, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is ranked 77th in revenues by BIA Financial Network, Chantilly, Va. "We're significantly underpriced here, which is great for advertisers," says Condron. A typical 30-second spot on wnep's 6 p.m. news show sells for $600 to $900, he says. BIA estimated wnep's 1999 revenues at $20.6 million.