Itinerant News Whiz Tries to Revive WCBS

Joel Cheatwood, 41, a placid, scruffy-faced news executive, arrived at WCBS’s midtown offices earlier this month, his latest stop on a high-profile, occasionally bumpy television news odyssey that has included top jobs in Miami, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. He will oversee the news operations of Channel 2, as well as the CBS-owned stations in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, among others.

Mr. Cheatwood’s most formidable task will be to revitalize the news desk at WCBS, the network’s bedraggled flagship in New York, a constant third-place finisher behind WABC’s Eyewitness News and WNBC’s two-headed Chuck Scarborough-Sue Simmons monster. Mr. Cheatwood inherits a news lineup plagued by nearly two decades of low ratings, budget cutbacks, set changes, inexplicable staff purges and more leadership meltdowns than the Nets and the Rangers combined.

“Its history is so bad,” said Bud Carey, WCBS’s vice president and general manager from 1992 to 1997. “It has proven time after time that it’s not someplace that people go to watch local news.”

That’s pretty much the new boss’ assessment, too. “We’re up against a public perception [in which] basically people have forgotten about us,” Mr. Cheatwood said. “We have to get ourselves back on the radar screen.”

Mr. Cheatwood has developed a reputation as a patron saint of lost news divisions. The only son of evangelical ministers who occasionally attended Pentecostal tent meetings, the California-born Mr. Cheatwood has spent more than 20 years working in television journalism, starting in his hometown of Fresno, then on to San Francisco, Richmond, Va., and Cleveland. At 29, he became news director at WSVN in Miami, where he made his first mark on the national scene. He revamped WSVN as a flashy, intensely local news outlet, using up to seven hours per day for news. The product was hype-ish and noisy and heavy on crime reporting. It became the city’s most-watched station. “That was a pretty big coup,” said Al Primo, a former WABC news director and an Eyewitness News godfather turned news consultant. “Anyone who is able to move ratings is like a god.”

In 1993, Mr. Cheatwood moved to Boston, where Mr. Ansin had purchased the third-place WHDH. The end result was the same: WHDH, too, rose to become the No. 1 news broadcast in Boston. Boston Globe reporter Ed Siegel, then that paper’s television critic, said Mr. Cheatwood’s slick broadcast changed “the character of news in Boston.”

But Chicago proved to be his Waterloo. Leaving Mr. Ansin’s nest in 1997, he flew to the Windy City to be vice president of news at WMAQ, an NBC affiliate with a solid second place in the ratings. Almost from the start, Mr. Cheatwood clashed with WMAQ staff members. He was criticized for being aloof–he often stayed shut in his office, earning himself the nickname “The Great Oz” among reporters–and was snickered at for renaming a simple newsroom desk a “data center” and for a promotion that heralded the station’s helicopters as “Jetcopter 1! Jetcopter 2!” This later proved embarrassing when the Chicago Sun-Times revealed the “Jetcopter 1! Jetcopter 2!” promotion featured a single helicopter, shot twice from different angles.

But Mr. Cheatwood’s biggest crisis was Jerry Springer. The trashmeister of “Bizarre One-Night Stands!” and “Honey, I’m a Prostitute” infamy was brought aboard to deliver commentaries shortly into Mr. Cheatwood’s tenure–immediately triggering a staff revolt. Though Mr. Springer lasted only three nights on the air, co-anchors Rob Magers and Carol Marin quit WMAQ in protest, and the station has yet to recover in the ratings. “I had a bad experience with Mr. Cheatwood,” said Mr. Magers, who now anchors Chicago’s ABC affiliate, sounding a bit like a hippie who’s stopped dropping acid. “I have no interest in speaking about him or thinking about him.”

Mr. Cheatwood denied responsibility for Mr. Springer’s hiring, saying it wasn’t his call. “Springer’s involvement at that station was put into play I think three months prior to my arrival,” he said. “The initial plan had been to have him anchor a newscast, and I basically refused to do that.”

By 1998, Mr. Cheatwood had gone to KYW-TV in Philadelphia. Although there were some allegations that an advertiser was allowed editorial input over a life-style segment (charges that were investigated and later dropped by the local chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), Mr. Cheatwood was generally credited with reviving another down-and-out news division.

“Joel has faced serious challenges at every station he has gone to,” said Jonathan Klein, a former executive vice president at CBS News who now runs the Feed Room, a dot-com broadcast company. “His career is the story of a lot of so-called irreparable stations that Joel not only fixed, but made dominant in the market.”

If that’s true, Mr. Cheatwood has his work cut out for him at WCBS’s news division, an outfit so beleaguered that Mr. Primo referred to it as “the hardest job in local television news.” In comparison to WNBC, with anchor bedrocks Chuck Scarborough (since 1974) and Sue Simmons (since 1980), or WABC with Bill Beutel (since 1962!), WCBS remains a news division largely without defining personalities or a single, coherent identity. “It’s the lost station,” said Dow Smith, who teaches at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University. “It doesn’t know what it is. There’s no particular reason to watch it.”

Especially during the past decade. There have been five news directors in the past 10 years–Paul Sagan, Dean Daniels, Jerry Nachman, Bill Carey (no relation to Bud) and now Mr. Cheatwood. There have been staff purges as well, including a major bloodletting in 1996 in which seven on-air people were canned, including anchors John Johnson and Michelle Marsh.

“There have been so many changes over the years and so many directional flip-flops,” Mr. Cheatwood said. Viewers, he said, were “frustrated with a lack of clarity in terms of what the station was trying to accomplish, so they just kind of wrote it off.”

But even when WCBS pulled itself up and appeared to be on the verge of something big, it found disaster. In 1997, Judge Judy , the hit legal show, became a great lead-in to WCBS’s 5 p.m. newscast, which began making a heartening climb in the ratings, finishing second to Oprah -led WABC. But when time came to renew the Judge Judy contract for 1999, network executives balked at the price, and the show skipped to WNBC, where it recently beat Oprah in the February sweeps. Pressed for a fill-in, WCBS got stuck with The Martin Short Show , which promptly tanked, got moved to 1:35 a.m. and was replaced by a 4 p.m. newscast that now draws 70 percent fewer viewers than Judge Judy .

“You have got to get lots of different things working for you at the same time at a local television station,” said Mr. Carey, who now teaches at the Newhouse School. “You got to get your lead-ins working. You got to get your program working. You have to have some history working for you. Also, the other guy has to give something away. And neither NBC or ABC are dumb enough to give anything away.” But Mr. Klein, an unabashed fan of Mr. Cheatwood’s, said, “He’s not a one-trick pony.”

Mr. Cheatwood said he wants WCBS news to look “unique,” but emphasized that his changes are not likely to be as dramatic as they were in, say, Miami. “It was a lot more shoot-from-the-hip in Miami–try it, if it doesn’t work, so what,” he said. “I think here we probably weigh decisions just a beat or two longer.”

Indeed, this time Mr. Cheatwood will be up against a lot of history. “The station has a long tradition of failure,” said Mr. Nachman. “I used to wonder, having worked there as a reporter in a more successful era, whether Edward R. Murrow hadn’t left a cigarette burning somewhere that produced a toxic fume because so many of my predecessors ran out of there screaming, as did I and my successor.” [WCBS, 2, 11 p.m.]

Thursday, April 20

The UPN is working on its own entry into the ever-growing voyeur-TV sweepstakes. It’s called The Big House , in which contestants compete in bizarre domestic competitions to try and win–that’s right … a dream house! So far, contestants have done things like looking for lost jewelry, scrubbing a tiled room covered in tomato sauce and trying to stack a dishwasher as fast as possible. Sounds like a typical Saturday afternoon in the apartment. “It got really intense,” said Tom Nunan, UPN’s president of entertainment. “Between the minor duels and other things that went on between the characters, every single adult ended up breaking down crying at one point.” Now it really sounds like a typical Saturday afternoon at the apartment!

Tonight, watch UPN’s hit WWF Smackdown . [WWOR, 9, 8 p.m.]

Friday, April 21

Cubs at Mets . To be followed by a Bobby Valentine lecture at the Wharton School: “A Keynesian Approach to the Split Finger.” [WPIX, 11, 7 p.m.]

Saturday, April 22

Inside Roller Jam . For those unfulfilled by the regular series Roller Jam . [E!, 24, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, April 23

Sunday night, and not a single Bob Halmi epic on the air, so you’ll have to watch In & Out , with script by Paul Rudnick, instead. Kevin Kline plays a teacher who is outed by a former student on the Oscars and then gets kissed by Tom Selleck. Hold on for Joan Cusack. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Monday, April 24

& Tonight, on CBS’s Family Law , a really nasty divorce. [WCBS, 2, 10 p.m.]

Tuesday, April 25

Wow! The Most Awesome Acts on Earth . Since it’s the Family Channel, we’ve got to believe the acts are family-oriented. [Family Channel, 14, 10 p.m.]