After a year of weathering much change, WRAL solidifies lead in Triangle TV ratings

The past year has been an eventful one for local TV news stations, with intensified ratings battles, studio (and news hour) expansions, and high-profile embarrassments involving some of the area’s most beloved on-air talents.

WRAL, owned and operated by family-owned Capitol Broadcasting Company, which also owns Fox 50, monopolizes the story of the past 12 months, for better or worse.

The better: WRAL is experiencing its best ratings in years. The worse: The station spent the first part of 2019 distracted by a series of staff issues, some of which led to the loss of personnel.

But despite the upheaval, the station has managed to solidify its position as the local ratings leader in its ongoing battle with Disney-owned WTVD (also known as ABC11) and Nexstar-owned WNCN (known as CBS 17).

After several years where the gap appeared to be closing, Nielsen reports for the first third of 2019 show that WRAL has now widened its lead over WTVD.

The margin is closer in the morning time periods — dead even from 6 to 7 a.m., according to averaged Nielsen ratings for January through April. And WTVD is ahead in that period by more than a point in the women 25-54 demographic.

If you factor in the simulcast of the WRAL broadcast on sister station Fox 50, the lead is even greater.

The numbers are closer if you look at ratings from Comscore, a media analytics company that uses data from cable and satellite viewers, but which doesn’t measure over-the-air (antenna) viewers, which make up about 15 percent of the market. WTVD leads WRAL slightly in the morning using that measurement (if you don’t factor in the Fox 50 simulcast), but WRAL is still ahead at other time periods.

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The WRAL weekday morning news team, L-R: Elizabeth Gardner, Renee Chou, Jeff Hogan, Lena Tillett, Brian Shrader. WRAL

But both Byron Grandy, vice president and general manager at WNCN, and Caroline Welch, president and general manager at WTVD, will tell you they take Nielsen numbers with a grain of salt, because the sample size is so small.

Nielsen ratings have long been the most widely accepted measurement of television, even though the gathering method — randomly assigned set-top meters — is far from perfect. But more and more media companies are now also looking at Comscore.

In this market, Nielsen measures 600 homes and Comscore measures half a million, Welch said. But Comscore doesn’t measure over-the-air (antenna) viewers, which makes up about 15 percent of the local market (a segment likely to grow as consumers continue to cut the cord in favor of antennas and streaming).

So for now, Nielsen, which is the measurement used by advertisers, is still the industry standard.

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WNCN / CBS 17 evening anchors Angela Taylor, left, and Marius Payton. WNCN / CBS 17

“WRAL is Number 1 overall, and even without Fox they can say that they’re Number 1 overall,” said professor Charlie Tuggle, after reviewing the Nielsens ratings data. Tuggle is the Stembler distinguished professor of broadcast journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“TVD is down a little bit in most areas,” Tuggle said. “They’re both down a little bit at 11 p.m., but that said, that’s a clear lead for RAL.”

WRAL vice president and general manager Joel Davis says WRAL focuses on the fundamentals: “Looking at what types of stories we want to be covering and how we’re going to cover them, how we’re going to allocate our resources to be sure we’re covering the stories. ... At the end of the day I like to tell the staff, our gimmick is we do the news, and we do it better than anyone else.”

As in previous years, WNCN is still in third place and still holding steady. They do best in afternoons and evenings, with their highest numbers coming in the 5 to 5:30 p.m. newscast.

“NCN is starting to make a bit of a move in some areas,” Tuggle noted. “I think that’s good for the market and certainly good for them. And they just won an award — the news organization of the year at RTDNA. But it’s like, what difference does it make if no one’s watching you. But at least now some people are watching them.

“They still have a ways to go, but these numbers have to be encouraging to the folks at that station.”

Grandy said he likes his station’s position.

“We’re very excited, and we’re very proud of the growth we’ve been able to show and in holding our audience in certain time periods as well. In this world of more competition, and more distractions … we like our position and the fact that we can hang on to an audience.”

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WTVD ABC11’s 6 p.m. news team, left to right: Mark Armstrong, Steve Daniels, Tisha Powell and Chris Hohmann. WTVD

Either way, Welch said WTVD’s focus is on delivering what viewers need.

“The station is doing great and our focus is always on, ‘are we providing the viewers in this area what they would like and are we doing a good job by them?’” Welch said. “And that is what Comscore measures for me. Just due to the size of the households, it lets me focus on the audience.”

Turbulence at WRAL

No station in the area has seen more change in the past year than WRAL.

Last June, following the retirement of vice president and general manager Steve Hammel, Capitol Broadcasting Company hired Davis to oversee WRAL and Fox 50. Davis came to Raleigh from KGTV in San Diego.

Among the earliest and most visible developments after Davis’ arrival were lead anchor David Crabtree’s decision to postpone his retirement, which he had announced in mid-2017, and the station’s ratings win with the Raleigh Christmas Parade — a parade the station fought to broadcast the year before after WTVD won the official broadcast rights.

The station even started a new downtown Raleigh Christmas tradition — a free winter wonderland with activities for kids, starting just as the parade ended.

But the high of those early wins was followed by some significant PR blows.

First, in late January, Crabtree lost his much-publicized position as a member of the clergy in the Episcopal Church because of an inappropriate sexual relationship that violated church rules.

He read a statement at the end of the 6 p.m. newscast on Jan. 25 informing viewers that the church had taken action against him.

“Years ago, I had a consensual relationship with a woman ... a relationship the church deemed inappropriate. I accept the decision. My actions were unacceptable. I apologize.”

Crabtree, who is divorced with two adult daughters, had been an ordained deacon since 2004 and was a member of the clergy at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh.

The Episcopal Diocese told The News & Observer at the time that their actions stemmed from an October 2018 complaint alleging “sexual misconduct and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.”

Neither Crabtree nor officials at WRAL have gone into detail about the allegations against Crabtree, but Davis does say that most viewers they heard from were in Crabtree’s corner.

“In David’s situation it was very much, ‘Why is David even saying this on the air? Why is he reporting this, it’s his personal business, we don’t really care.’ David felt strongly that he needed to become transparent about that, and we felt that way as well. We need to be out in front of that. If we expect our sources to do the same when confronted with difficult circumstances, we need to honor that as well. “

Over the next two weeks the station was dealing with an even bigger crisis, one that would lead to the resignation of chief meteorologist Greg Fishel. A fixture at WRAL for almost 40 years and the most high-profile face at the station, Fishel was arguably the most beloved public figure in the Triangle.

The circumstances of his departure have not been publicly disclosed.

When the station announced at the end of a 6 p.m. newscast on Feb. 13 that Fishel was no longer with the station, it called the decision “a personnel matter.” Fishel, who still lives in Raleigh, released a statement the same evening citing “personal issues” that led to his having to leave.

Fishel’s public statements since then have been made in two Facebook posts — on Feb. 14 and on June 9 — thanking friends and viewers for their concern and support, and letting everyone know he is OK.

Former WRAL meteorologist Greg Fishel. N&O file photo

Davis said viewers were upset when Fishel left and they reached out to the station wanting to know more about why he was gone.

“We couldn’t be as forthcoming about Greg’s situation, so that creates more questions,” Davis said. “We simply try to answer them as best we can, and also make it clear why we weren’t answering some things. In a personnel situation, I have no interest in causing damage to a person’s situation, and while there are things we have to do from a management standpoint in a personnel matter, I hold no ill will toward Greg, and he has remained a big supporter of the station.

“And because of that, I think viewers understood once we explained why we weren’t giving further detail, there was an appreciation for our using discretion.”

Then on April 4, WRAL announced that it had let go anchor Brad Johansen, who had only been at the station for a year. In an email to WRAL staff, Davis said: “There was a personnel matter and we handled it immediately. Brad Johansen is no longer with the station.”

Johansen had been hired to take over for Crabtree after his retirement, which by this time had been postponed.

As with the Fishel situation, Davis will not comment on the details leading to Johansen’s dismissal, but he does say that viewer feedback was not as strong as it had been with Fishel and Crabtree.

“He’d been here a year, where between Greg and David you’ve got decades of experience,” Davis said. “The audience hadn’t had time to develop the depth of relationship with him that they have with Greg Fishel, for instance.”

Lessons learned

In Tuggle’s opinion, a station faced with a crisis in which the “face” of the product has done something that causes embarrassment or damage to the brand, has no choice but to cut that person loose.

“We’re an industry that’s built around public opinion,” Tuggle said. “And if the public opinion is going to be negative or already is negative to the point that it’s going to hurt your bottom line, you have no choice but to jettison the person. Plain and simple, that’s all there is to it. ... This is a business, and the business makes a decision that at this point the bad is outweighing the good and it’s time to get rid of the bad.”

It sounds harsh, but it’s the reality.

Michelle Amazeen, assistant professor of Mass Communication at Boston University, pointed to the firing of several men in the national news business — Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly — as evidence that news organizations must take action when there’s a problem that could upset viewers and advertisers.

“News brands are now on par with consumer product brands,” Amazeen said via email. “Protecting brand image/reputation is increasingly important as news organizations have drawn the spotlight and ensuing scrutiny. News personalities who make insensitive comments risk consumer backlash and advertiser boycotts.”

Davis, who said he learned from mentors to treat a crisis as an opportunity, stresses the importance of honesty and transparency with the audience.

“People and their connection to our audience are a huge part of our brand,” Davis said. “When something happens that requires a response, I subscribe to the mantra espoused by a local PR executive, Patty Briguglio: ‘Tell it all, tell it fast, tell the truth.’ In the two cases where we had to part ways with employees, we were as transparent as we could be without unnecessarily damaging the individuals involved.”

A Fishel-less weather team

One of the more surprising aspects of the one-two-three punch landed on WRAL in the first part of 2019 is that it had little impact on ratings. For example, in total households for the individual months of February through May, WRAL saw small ratings dips in the 6-6:30 p.m. time slot, the main weathercast that had been anchored by Fishel. But the station still saw improvements each month over the same periods the year before, and still maintained its lead over WTVD.

Tuggle said it illustrates that viewers value the whole package at WRAL.

“The product is not one person,” he said. “So what’s more important — is it Greg Fishel or is it the newscast as a whole? I think it tells you that it’s the show as a whole and that that group of personnel is more important to the viewers than one lone individual.”

Davis agrees, crediting the station’s deep bench on the weather team in particular.

“I think what we found is we had multiple players with very similar strengths to Greg and I think we were very lucky that we had a general manager prior to me who had assembled a team with our news leadership that we could sustain a loss like that and the viewers still trusted our people first and foremost for critical life-saving information.”

The WRAL weather team, L-R: Peta Sheerwood, Elizabeth Gardner, Aimee Wilmoth, Mike Maze, Kat Campbell. WRAL

It took WRAL — which at one time had labeled its weather forecast as “O-Fishel” — a few months to decide how the weather team would be structured without Fishel, and they announced their decision in mid-May.

Meteorologist Mike Maze, who filled in for Fishel while he was out on a medical leave in 2017, takes the 5 and 6 p.m. slots on WRAL, the 10 p.m. slot on Fox 50 and the 11 p.m. slot on WRAL. Elizabeth Gardner continues to lead the morning weather coverage on WRAL from 4:30 to 7 a.m., 7 to 9 a.m. on Fox 50 and noon on WRAL.

Kat Campbell joins Maze at 4 and 5 p.m. on WRAL part of the week and handles weekend evenings for now, but the plan is for her to eventually be on at 4 and 5:30 Monday through Friday.

The station also has Aimee Wilmoth and Peeta Sheerwood and plans to hire another meteorologist this fall.

The big thing missing from any of the weather staff’s title at WRAL is the word “chief.” Fishel’s “chief meteorologist” title has essentially been retired.

Davis explained that decision.

“We have two incredibly strong pillars in our weather team in Elizabeth in the mornings and Mike in the evenings. And as we looked at that and we talked with them about this, I could not find a fair way to give it to one or the other, which got us asking the question, ‘why do you have that title in the first place?’”

Davis said the decision had nothing to do with a salary bump that might come with the title. “Not at all. Not even part of the discussion.”

More hours of news

In early June, Capitol Broadcasting expanded its morning news product by adding an additional hour to Fox 50 each weekday.

Fox 50 simulcasts the WRAL newscast from 4:30 to 7 a.m. each weekday, and then airs its own newscast from 7 to 9 a.m. But starting June 3, the Fox 50 newscast expanded to 10 a.m.

That additional hour gives CBC’s stations a combined 5.5-hour news block each weekday morning and 10.5 hours today each weekday.

The WTVD / ABC11 morning team, L-R: Don Schwenneker, Kim Deaner, Barbara Gibbs and John Clark. WTVD / ABC11

By comparison, WTVD airs 7.5 hours of news each day (including a 10 p.m. newscast which airs on The CW), and WNCN has 6 hours of news each weekday.

Davis said the increase puts Fox 50 more in line with the amount of news Fox affiliates are airing across the country. Fox affiliates have a lighter network load because the network doesn’t produce original content for 10 p.m.

Less drama at WTVD and WNCN

The past year has been decidedly less dramatic for WTVD and WNCN, but both stations have achievements to tout.

WTVD, a reporting partner of The News & Observer, unveiled its expanded and renovated street-side studio in downtown Raleigh in October. The station’s home base is still the Liberty Street newsroom in Durham, but the Raleigh newsroom has become more important in the years since it opened in 2005.

ABC11’s John Clark, Barbara Gibbs and Don Schwenneker broadcast from the new studio on Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. ABC11 ABC11

The expansion of the studio meant the entire morning news team could broadcast from Raleigh. WTVD broadcasts the morning, noon, 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts from Raleigh. The 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts still come from Durham. The 10 p.m. newscast that airs on WLFL (The CW) also comes from Durham.

“We’re excited to expand in a place that continues to bring a lot of live events,” Welch said. “We continue to enjoy the location.”

WNCN, which launched its “Local news that matters” brand a little over a year ago, added new evening anchors last spring: Angela Taylor replaced Sharon Tazewell, who left the station on March 1, and Marius Payton replaced Sean Maroney, who left on Feb. 14. In April of this year, WNCN added Bill Young as the morning anchor alongside Taniya Wright, and moved Russ Bowen to anchoring at 5:30 and reporting for 6 and 11 p.m.

The station also added the Weather Beast in April. The SUV, wrapped with CBS 17 Weather Beast logos, is a multi-camera mobile weather station with radar capability and a HAM radio.

“It’s a big investment we made,” said Grandy. “But weather matters, and it’s important for us to be market-first on that.”

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The Weather Beast is CBS 17’s multi-camera mobile weather station with radar capability and a HAM radio. WNCN / CBS 17

The station also takes part in a hurricane-focused digital weather program called Eye On the Storm, which streams online every Wednesday at 8 p.m. The program is led by CBS 17 meteorologists, which include Wes Hohenstein, Bill Reh and Paul Heggen, and weather teams from other Nexstar-owned stations along the Atlantic coast.

A digital future

Looking forward, all three stations acknowledge the importance of digital news instead of relying solely on TV broadcasts.

“The biggest push is for us, along with everything that we’re trying to build with the ‘Local news that matters’ brand, is more live streaming,” said WNCN’s Grandy. “Digital exclusive stories, adding more digital journalists. We want to talk to people all day long. I think there’s a lot of runway for us in terms of growth and success.”

At WRAL, Davis describes the digital product as “incredibly robust,” with more than 50 employees in that division devoted to sales and content generation.

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Joel Davis, vice president and general manager of WRAL-TV and WRAZ-TV (Fox 50). Courtesy of WRAL

Davis said research shows that in some markets, TV viewing has dropped off because the stations’ digital products are strong, and viewers feel they don’t need to watch if they can find the content online.

“It becomes a real balancing act of, how do you provide what you need to digitally and still make sure there’s a unique value proposition for your television product?’ We’ve put a lot of thought into that and how we differentiate the product between TV and website.

“It’s kind of the challenge of the 2020s, I think: How do you keep drawing television when the digital products overall have been so strong?”

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Caroline Welch, president and general manager of WTVD ABC11, at a press conference on October 23, 2017 to announce that WTVD will sponsor the 2017 Raleigh Christmas Parade. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Welch agrees, but stresses the importance of storytelling, whatever the platform.

“You have to meet the audience where they are, and that’s everywhere these days — from television to streaming platforms to social,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about storytelling, and that’s where our ultimate focus is. We work to tell our stories in a way that connects with the audience on whatever platform they are using. As journalists, that’s our job.”

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.