The battle of the nightly news anchors: 'star wars' comes to local TV

It's 6 p.m. At Boston's top three TV stations, the Great Ratings War is about to break out again.

All eyes - as they have been since September - are on Channel 7, WNEV-TV. Right after an ad for Magic Pan Restaurants, amid the blare of trumpets, the station's new million-dollar ''Dream Team'' comes into focus: Tom Ellis ($600, 000+ per year) and co-anchor Robin Young ($400,000+).

Robin Young, from curled coiffure to high heels, could easily have stepped straight from the pages of Vogue magazine. Tom Ellis is what his fans call ''ruggedly handsome,'' with the chiselled jaw of a real-life Dick Tracy.

Armed with these two superstars, plus $3.5 million for special equipment and a new, colorful newsroom, Channel 7 is trying to blast its way to No. 1 in what has become the biggest moneymaker for TV stations in America, their own local news programs.

What's happening here has been repeated from coast to coast. Boston - the nation's sixth largest television market - is just the latest, and certainly one of the flashiest, examples.

''News wars are being waged in almost every television market in the country, to some degree, because whether you're in the 10th largest market or the 110th, news is profitable,'' says Thomas Bohn, dean of Ithaca College's School of Communications in New York.

A 30-second commercial on the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. news on a network-affiliate in Los Angeles, for example, costs between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the station. The 11 p.m. report is much pricier, falling in the $2,200 to $3,200 range.

Although news is expensive to produce, the local stations don't have to split the money they make with the network.

It's not uncommon for a top-rated station to earn as much as half its profits from advertising sold on local news. Even with its long-standing position at the bottom of the heap, Channel 7, the CBS affiliate in Boston, pockets a third of its profits from this one source.

Dr. Bohn, a sort of battlefield historian of TV news wars, says it's only been over the last 5 to 10 years that local stations have fully recognized the profit potential in news.

As a result, the scramble for ratings is becoming more intense than ever, with local news programs being promoted with the bluster and bucks once reserved for prime-time entertainment.

Says Bohn, ''Once it was recognized how much money was being made in local news, the anchors began to demand a share of that - and they've gotten it.''

This certainly seems to have happened in Boston, where an intense bidding competition over a few popular newscasters marked the first open hostilities of the current nightly news war.

In early June, Channel 7 succeeded in pulling Ellis away from top-rated Channel 5 - where the tall Texan had been reading the news for four years. But in hiring Ellis, Channel 7 blew the roof off Boston's TV news salary scale.

''What they've [Channel 7] basically done,'' says Channel 4 general manager Sy Yanoff, ''is taken the Boston market and started to pay New York and Los Angeles prices.''

Ellis was in the midst of negotiating a new contract with Channel 5 when he decided to switch sides. At the time, he already was the highest paid anchor in town - earning a comfortable $165,000 a year.

But quadrupling Ellis's income was only the beginning. During the summer-long ''star wars,'' Channel 7's generals:

* Tried to lure away Channel 5's other top-rated anchor, Natalie Jacobson. This forced Channel 5 to quadruple her $100,000 salary and that of her co-anchor husband, Chet Curtis.

* Completed their new ''Dream Team'' by hiring Robin Young. The former NBC News correspondent will make an estimated $2 million over five years.

* Made substantial, though not stratospheric, offers to several other reporters at Channels 4 and 5. Political reporter Joe Day left his $52,000 job at Channel 5 to sign a Channel 7 contract that pays him $97,000 the first year and $127,000 by the fifth.

Martha Bradlee, a Channel 5 reporter, says she was tempted to hop aboard the Channel 7 money machine, but refused out of a sense of loyalty. However, she also renegotiated her contract and says she'll never wrangle over wages again without the help of an agent.

Not surprisingly, officials at competing stations are peeved at having to hike salaries to keep Channel 7's fox out of their chicken coops.

Jim Thistle, former news director at Channel 5, was so disgusted with the salary-hiking frenzy he resigned his position, saying the money being spent was ''obscene'' and would be better used on upgrading the news operation.

''The primary reason for switching from station to station has become money, '' says Mr. Thistle, who now teaches journalism at Boston University. The way Thistle and many other observers see it, Channel 7 is trying to bankroll its way to credibility.

''My response to that is that I'd like to have any kind of credibility I can get, because we've had none,'' says Channel 7's general manager, Winthrop Baker.

With the smoke of battle hanging heavy, it's not yet clear who the long-term victor will be. But according to the first solid ratings figures - now in for October - Channel 7 is still in last place, although with a slightly improved fighting posture.

In the meantime, Channel 7's personnel pyrotechnics is hardly over. The station has fired several people over the last several months, including the news director brought in four months ago.

Outside observers say the battle for Boston is a classic example of a No. 3 station fighting to get its local news out of last place.

But in some ways, the situation in this city is unique. The changes at Channel 7 were first sparked by government action. Last May, RKO General was forced to sell the station (then WNAC-TV) to New England Television Corporation, ending a 13-year legal hassle that had weaved its way to the US Supreme Court.

Because of the circumstances, the new owners got the station for the bargain-basement price of $22 million. During the same week, by coincidence, Channel 5 was bought by Metromedia for $220 million.

Channel 7 also has been an unusually dismal competitor in the Boston market. In fact, at one point last year - before the station was sold - Channel 7's six o'clock news rated an embarrassing fourth behind reruns of ''Happy Days'' on a local UHF station.

''If we make very modest rating gains,'' Mr. Baker says, ''like two rating points in one year from each of the other two stations in the late and early news, we'll have gotten back several hundred percent on our investment.''

That is, if you view TV news as strictly a business issue, which Baker quickly points out he does not. He adds, however, that ''the best way to get the money to upgrade a news operation is to make the station more successful.''

Nobody expects Channel 7 to make front-line advances overnight, says Tony Malara, vice-president and general manager of the CBS television network. ''Because viewing habits are deep, they're set, and it takes a while to turn things around.''

The new owners say they don't expect to gain much ground in ratings until at least May of next year.

Meanwhile, Channel 7 is spending millions to beef up operations outside the boundaries of its early and late editions of local news, especially during the important ''lead-in'' slot just before the 6 p.m. report. This is the time station executives say many viewers turn on their sets, keeping the same station for the local news.

Later this month, Channel 7 is launching a new two-hour information program called ''Look,'' which will air weekday afternoons from 4 to 6. The format will be built around a daily ''special section,'' such as food and cooking on Wednesdays, together with a sprinkling of news items and consumer advice.

Tonight, like every other night, Ellis closes the dinnertime newscast with a hopeful yet firmly phrased: ''We'll see you at 11.'' He made sure the sign-off privilege, like the opening words, was guaranteed to him in his contract.

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