How a Gannett Station Went from Worst to First

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It didn't happen over night, but WGRZ, the Gannett station in Buffalo was able to go from worst to first in the ratings.

How'd they do it?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the chance of WGRZ Channel 2 News becoming known for stability in the 21st century was about equal to the chances that Charlie Sheen would ever be considered the most stable actor in the Sheen family.

WGRZ reporter Scott Brown, the only news reporter at the station for the lows in the 1980s and the highs today, remembers how bad things were three decades ago. “It was kind of like playing for the 1962 New York Mets,” cracked Brown of the team managed by the late Casey Stengel that lost three-quarters of its games.

The remarkable rise of WGRZ from worst to first over the last several years is the result of all those things that made WKBW so dominant in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and WIVB No. 1 for more than a decade after people meters began measuring ratings in April of 2000.

WGRZ has stable ownership from Gannett; smart leadership; a long-standing anchor team; hard-driving reporters; a strong news image; and an exceptional promotional campaign that plays to what “Mad Men” creative genius Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has said is the key to advertising: happiness.

“Yes, it was harder than I thought it would be,” WGRZ GM JimToellner conceded this week. “It takes a long time to change already-held views and perceptions. We definitely changed the way we do news and we built up constancy of anchors, which we never had in the history of WGRZ. We were lucky to find great talent and to have an environment to keep it flourishing.”

The primary male anchor, Scott Levin, joined WGRZ in 1998, and his 15 years at the station is the shortest term of the main anchors. His co-anchor for the past 12 years, Maryalice Demler, will celebrate her 20th anniversary at the station in September. Meteorologist Kevin O’Connell came over from WIVB almost 20 years ago. Sports anchor Ed Kilgore, who has relinquished his 11 p.m. anchor slot to Adam Benigni, has been at the station since 1973. Benigni, who is poised to take over for Kilgore, has been at the station for almost 16 years. Now that’s stability.

The competition also helped WGRZ.

WKBW imploded in the last decade, cutting its staff, allowing the powerful lead-in from “Oprah” to head over to WIVB4 and making so many technical mistakes during newscasts that it became the joke that WGRZ once was.

More on the story from the Buffalo News