Remote control: CBS 2 boss says New York always called the shots

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Second of two parts.

So who’s really in charge of what’s going on these days at WBBM-Channel 2?

Is it Bruno Cohen, 59, the owlish president and general manager of the CBS-owned station who took over a money-losing also-ran in 2008 and turned it into a profitable contender? The man who brought Chicago legends Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson back together and reunited them on the anchor desk?

Or is it his bosses in New York, who unloaded a bunch of second-stringers from WCBS-TV (including Kate Sullivan, Steve Bartelstein and Megan Glaros) on their station here and forced Cohen to cancel his pet project, Monsters and Money in the Morning, after just seven months?

A fair answer to that would probably be both. But it’s a credit to Cohen’s candor and his manageable ego that he doesn’t try to diminish the influence of his corporate masters. “New York has always called the shots,” he says without sarcasm. “CBS has owned this place since the transmitter went on.” No wonder Jacobson, who first started working at CBS 2 in 1963, calls Cohen “more frank and open than any other general manager I’ve ever known."

Here, in the second half of our conversation last week, Cohen reflects on some of his station’s high and lows:

Q. You’ve had three different morning shows since you got here. What’s going on there?

A. We have more work to do. We made an effort at a very alternative type of broadcast in the mornings [Monsters and Money], and did not have traction with the audience in a reasonable period of time. So we’ve returned to a more traditional format, albeit recast with some new people that we have a lot of confidence in, and we’re doing better. But we’re substantially behind in the morning. We have a long way to go.

From a business perspective it’s important that we grow in the morning because there’s dollars available in the morning that we can’t really tap unless we’re more competitive. I like what we’re doing in the morning in this format, and the audience seems to be accepting it more quickly than I had anticipated. On a percentage basis, we’re doubling and in certain cases tripling the number [from a year ago]. But it was from an extraordinarily small base, so I don’t want to make more of it than there is.

Q. You brought back Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson with a lot of fanfare. Are you disappointed that they haven’t improved the ratings at 6pm?

A. It’s very important to our overall news strategy to have Bill & Walter with us right now. Because they give us a tie to a time when the CBS brand in Chicago was very powerful, and they signal a commitment to a quality of journalism that we continue to aspire to. So I think they’re very good for CBS 2 — regardless of what the number is at 6 o’clock. We think we should be doing better on all of our newscasts. I wish their number was higher, but it isn’t at this point.

Q. You don’t see it as a rejection by the audience?

A. No, not at all. At 5pm and 6pm, what we’ve got are smaller audiences for news and very slow pace of change in audience performance in those time periods traditionally. All I hear is that people are glad that Bill & Walter are back and happy to see them on. I also think that Bill & Walter may have been a little creaky out of the gate, getting used to being back on TV on a daily basis and working with each other. To me, the viewing experience of seeing their newscast now is much more comfortable. They’re much more on their game and enjoying doing it, and I think that’s a good sign for growth in that time period. I’m committed to them, and glad they’re on our air and associated with the station.

Q. What’s the deal with Kate Sullivan?

A. We have to take advantage of what our corporation can do for us when we can. When we had the opportunity to bring in someone like Kate, who had developed her big market experience in New York and who’s clearly an asset for us, we took advantage of it. I remember you asking me at one point: “Is New York calling the shots?” The answer is: New York has always called the shots. CBS has owned this place since the transmitter went on. All the general managers here work at the pleasure of CBS. But when they have ways to help us, whether it’s through the leverage of buying syndicated programming, or being able to move very high potential on-air people inside of our company and take advantage of opportunities we have, we seize that.

Q. Do you honestly believe that people are watching your news because of her?

A. I think [they’re watching] because of how well she fits into the kind of program that we’re doing, and innately because of her own talent as a news anchor. Look, as a general category, there’s not a great track record of people breaking through and being accepted in Chicago. It usually takes decades for someone to be accepted on the air. Kate Sullivan has been here since September, and we’ve changed our rank in our late news for the first time in 20 years.

Q. Who has helped you achieve this turnaround?

A. Our performance is really based on mostly the same people who were here when I got here. Obviously, Kate is new, and [news director] Jeff Kiernan came two years ago. But by and large, our reporters, our behind-the-scenes people in the newsroom, our key managers, our sales department, the people in our promo department, our technicians, our photographers, our editors — these are all the same people who have been getting thumped pretty badly here in Chicago for a long time. One of the things that’s palpable when you’re around this TV station these days is how much more confidence they have in what we’re doing. And I think, from where I sit, how that confidence is being reflected on the air in what we’re doing every day.

Q. How does that translate to your audience?

A. If they are longtime committed news viewers, I think they get a sense of continuity, a sense that this is a news operation that has a lot of institutional knowledge that accrues to the context in which we do our reporting. To the extent that people are comfortable with people they’ve seen on the air a long time, like Pam Zekman, I think that’s meaningful to them.

What it means on a night-to-night basis is that we have experienced, talented people at all levels of this television station and have for a long time. But they’re collaborating at a different level today than they were two, three years ago. And that’s coming through in terms of the overall quality of the viewing experience and the quality of the news and information on the air.

Q. For a TV executive, you’re unusually forthcoming, you know?

A. I don’t really have anything to hide. And I don’t have much to spin. When we’re trying to do something that’s as difficult as turning around this kind of a TV station in a market that has so many strong competitors, you have to take some risks. Some of what we’ve done has worked and some of it hasn’t.

21 Comments

1) PGCrawford
March 15, 2011 at 8:27 am
Truth and honesty.
Funny how it always seems to raise good people to the top. Eh?!

2) Jim Strong
March 15, 2011 at 9:02 am
That's bunk that NY called the shots since "the transmitter went
on". I was there during the "glory" years when Les Atlas had total
control of WBBM-TV under a complex agreement between him and CBS on the
sale of the station. Those were the years of Fahey Flynn, Frank
Reynolds, Hugh Hill, John Drury, Carter Davidson, Bruce Roberts, P.J.
Hoff, Jerry Dunphy, Lee Philip etal. The station scrapped all network
programming for the Lady of Angels fire, fought the equal time rule over
certain NY objections, sent Davidson to Saigon to report, we did
documentaries (and sold them) with Frank Reynolds in Kenya, Philip in
Rome, Hill with a prize winning documentary on Stateville, and blanket
coverage of Springfield. Atlas and news director Bill Garry thumbed
their nose at CBS-New York, that is, until the takeover under the
agreement in '61 or '62 and the wrecking crew arrived.

3) two words
March 15, 2011 at 10:02 am
Mike North...

4) pbsecretcy
March 15, 2011 at 10:58 am
please! bring don schwenneker back and get rid of megan glaros. she
is very boring and not enough weather info. please! don schwenneker,
mary kay kleist or phil schwarz and say bye to megan glaros and steve
baskerville.

5) Pinball Wizard
March 15, 2011 at 11:12 am
Attention!!...Dateline Chicago....I just heard Baker Street on
K-HITS. If there was ever a song that needed to be played....again and
again and again. That is all. As you were.

6) Bill
March 15, 2011 at 11:52 am
#4 You must be out of your mind. Have you seen Megan Glaros??? Who
cares about how much weather she talks about?

7) James Dvorak
March 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm
I'm watching more often. There's a more comfortable feel to the
station but still some glaring problems.
I admit to serious reservations about Bill and Walter but, as Cohen
notes, as creaky as they were in the beginning, they're smoothing out
and it is great to see.
Rob Johnson is a wonderful anchor and warm presence. You can tell
he's spent time in the field and understands the stories he's reporting.
Kate Sullivan couldn't be any more his opposite: an attractive news
reader without warmth or personality, she is a caricature. It's as
though she's edited onto the set, not physically present, when she and
Johnson are together. She relates to the camera like a model would,
vague and distant. She's missing any sort of chemistry with either the
audience or the reporters. particularly those who appear with her on
set.
And, please, the publicity headshot of Sullivan and Johnson is
outrageous! Whether it's been air-brushed or Photo-Shopped or both, it's
cartoonish.
As to the reporters...Mike Parker and Jay Levine have both
overstayed their welcome. Parker looks like he's been dragged off his
favorite stool at the corner tavern and Levine is, and has always been a
snake in the grass.
But while the two of them should be shown the door, I'd like to see
more of John Drummond. He's a delight but given far too little airtime
for a guy as feisty today as he ever was.

8) Hank Plante
March 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm
Bruno Cohen took our San Francisco CBS TV station to number one, and
he did it with solid news judgement and integrity. He's smart enough to
navigate the power balance between network bosses and local needs, and
to lead WBBM through the changing media landscape. Chicago is lucky to
have him.

9) Solid, Jackson
March 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Walter Jacobson is the best tv newsman in Chicago history. The guy
is indefatigable. He simply cannot be beaten down. He reminds one of the
Taub character on "House," who keeps coming back for more from Dr. House
even though he is, how would one put it, "really, really miserable."
So it is somewhat disappointing to read that Walter thinks his
current general manager is "more frank and open than any other general
manager I've ever known."
How much more frank could Stacey Marks Hyphen Bronner have been with
Walter when she said, "Here is a pile of money, Walter. We'd like you to
solo anchor. Oh, I see you can't. Okay, let's have Robin Robinson wet
nurse you. And don't worry that you won't move the ratings needle one
iota from where the fungible guy we had on before you had it. We love
you."
See what love gets you? No respect.
As for Mr. Cohen, had he really been forthright he would have said,
"We've got almost double the lede-in of Channel 5, so we'd better have a
higher rating."
Now imagine a morning newscast that was as forthright as that. Plus,
of course, Megan's boobies. You might have something there.

10) Lori
March 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm
To post #4: I am woman and your jealousy is embarrassing to all
woman. How is Megan boring? Weather is a specific subject that does not
require a comic or juggler to communicate the message; thus, your
statement that Megan is boring is nonsensical. Only a person with low
self esteem could make a statement such as yours; you should be ashamed
of yourself.

11) JT
March 15, 2011 at 2:41 pm
Channel 2 news is the National Enquirer of local news. Just look at
the teasers they use during the lead in shows. Kate Sullivan is terrible
and Rob Johnson was the weakest link at Channel 7 so no wonder why they
let him go.

12) elaine benes
March 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm
Sad to read you are negative about Kate Sullivan. I like her -
personality, looks, sincerity. Give her a chance to learn the city and
area. I almost always agree with you when you don't like someone, but
not this time.

13) Jed
March 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm
Bruno is just doing his best to put a spin on everything to please
corporate in NYC. Seriously, if CBS or WCBS-TV is calling all the shots
here, what's the purpose of Bruno Cohen here in Chicago anyways? Why pay
him if CBS can just make all the decisions he is claiming he's making
with the talent and stuff? Makes no sense at all. Seriously and granted,
the ratings have upticked a tiny bit because of the pairing of Sullivan
and Johnson, but Rob works well with anyone he's teamed up with.
Sullivan needs to seriously get herself inclined with Chicago more and
remove that NY attitude she sometimes carries with her.
As for the morning show, unless Cohen or whomever makes the decision
to remove Bartlestein and Glaros takes place and Carlson is shifted back
to traffic and Kleist does the weather and Tellez and a new Chicago
co-anchor get re-teamed and they shave 30 minutes off the newscast, that
will be the only way people will start to watch this newscast again,
which is NOT increasing in the ratings as Cohen is mentioning on here;
yet another spin by the puppet that's being controlled by CBS/WCBS-TV.
Sullivan can be more liked if she just tries a little harder with
fitting in; the other two NYers are hopeless and just better to send
them back doing mornings at WCBS.

14) Tpical rant
March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm
There goes Jed railing on non-Chicagoans again. Jed is so
predictable that I suspect he is the same d-bag known as
liveandlocal....only the same person could be so anal as to beat the
same drum over and over.

15) Garry
March 15, 2011 at 5:17 pm
#9. Of course Skippy reminds you of Taub, the character is played by
his son!

16) Krishnan
March 15, 2011 at 5:31 pm
I think Larry Potash on WGN and Tom Skilling should do the news all
day on WGN. Why do they waste time with Maury and those stupid WB shows?
I think Larry and Tom would score Numero Uno in the 25-54 demo.

17) Jim
March 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm
I'll admit it - I turn on CBS 2 at 5pm and 10pm because of Kate
Sullivan.

18) Amanda Bear
March 15, 2011 at 9:44 pm
I can't stand Susan Carlson. I'll only watch if she is replaced.

19) Lydia
March 16, 2011 at 8:00 am
To #16: Your idea is called CLTV and you are correct! CLTV is number
1 in the key A25-54 demo. You are are a keen observer of the pop culture
trends!

20) amazed
March 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm
The little I have seen of Kate Sullivan is favorable and I would
like to give her a chance. Unfortunately, she works with Rob Johnson who
is one of the most painful anchors I have watched - EVER. I watch CBS
shows at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and sometimes Friday,
and I can't switch the channel fast enough when I hear Rob Johnson. His
unscripted patter is painful and inane. At the end of a segment, he
makes comments that lead you to wonder if he understood the story that
was just reported on. When he is gone, maybe I'll stop switching to 7 or
5.
21. Anne
March 17, 2011 at 9:03 am
@ Solid, Jackson...You do realize that actor that plays Taub on
House is Walters son right??


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