One for the books: ABC 7’s epic winning streak defies odds

Twenty-five years ago today, the headline across the top of my column in the Sun-Times read: “Morning, noon and night, Channel 7 sweeps Chicago.” To anyone who followed the ups and downs of local television, it was an achievement that would have been inconceivable a few years earlier.

For a station that had long been derided for its “happy talk” news and for what one critic called a “disgraceful disregard for public service and journalistic ethics,” WLS-Channel 7’s turnaround from worst to first was nothing less than stunning. “Never in recent memory has one station so totally dominated local viewing as did the ABC-owned outlet during the just-ended February ratings sweeps,” I wrote on March 5, 1987.

What’s more remarkable is that the winning streak has never been broken.

Dennis Swanson was the wheeler dealer who made it happen. His tenure as vice president and general manager lasted only 20 months before he was promoted to New York, but during that time, he put all the key pieces in place: He hired an unknown talk show host from Baltimore named Oprah Winfrey to take over a faltering A.M. Chicago, he lured one legendary anchorman (Floyd Kalber) out of retirement, and another (John Drury) back from WGN, and he gambled on a couple of unproven syndicated games shows — Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune — as bookends for his afternoon newscasts.

Timing, good luck and the mistakes of ABC 7’s competitors helped, too. But all at once everything clicked. And the rest is history.

A quarter-century later — though Winfrey has retired, Kalber and Drury passed away, and those game shows are long in the tooth — ABC 7 continues to lead the market in ratings and revenue. Despite numerous changes on the air over the years, the station has benefitted from stable and effective leadership. Since Swanson left in 1985 (he’s now president of station operations for Fox Television Stations), ABC 7 has had only two general managers: Joe Ahern and, for the last 15 years, Emily Barr.

Once again in February, every single newscast on ABC 7 was No. 1 in its time period, according to Nielsen Co. household ratings, including the flagship 10pm newscast, anchored by Ron Magers and Kathy Brock. True, their 14.9 percent audience share is down dramatically from the 27 share Drury and co-anchor Mary Ann Childers commanded in 1987. But the shares of their competitors have fallen even lower.

With the rise of the Internet, social media and mobile apps, television news isn’t nearly as vital or important as it was 25 years ago. Viewership for all local news continues to age and shrink. Information bombards us from everywhere, while context and relevance seem more elusive than ever. Yet the value of trusted brands and market leadership endures.

At a black-tie dinner in New York last week, the Broadcasters Foundation of America honored Swanson with its Golden Mike Award. Among other other career accomplishments, it was reported, they spoke of his turning the station he once ran in Chicago “from an also ran to a No. 1."

The legacy lives on.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)