Savannah's WJCL Gets National Limelight
Sunday, December 23, 2007 7:00 PM
Reality television is turning its sometimes harsh eye toward Savannah, and the subject is - television.
WJCL's local newscast, a perennial cellar-dweller in the ratings race, will be the subject of a 13-hour reality series to air this spring/summer on cable's TV Guide channel. Nick Davis Productions, which has contracted with TV Guide to produce the program, is already more than a month into a five- to six-month shoot, shadowing the day-to-day working life of WJCL reporters, producers and news execs.
It's the second series in the news-themed reality show that began last summer with a look at a station in Odessa, Texas. That station, in a much smaller market than Savannah (140th, versus Savannah at 97th), was battling to achieve Number 1 ratings status. WJCL, on the other hand, is trying to change its standing as the lowest-rated local news show among ABC affiliates, according to WJCL News Director Michael Sullivan, who's pretty brutally honest about the work that lies ahead of the station.
Actually, that work lies ahead of two stations. WJCL and WTGS, the local Fox affiliate, are owned separately, but the WTGS owners hire WJCL to operate the station for them, including the newscast. Between the two, the news crew puts together a total of 26.5 hours of local news a week.
Why Savannah, and why specifically WJCL?
"We wanted a place that's not Texas," said Steve Bronstein, who is heading the series' production. "This certainly has a much lusher feel. It's a bigger city, and it's going to have more big-city problems.
"And it's a quirkier city - I think I can say quirkier," he said, going on to describe his crew's coverage of the station's coverage of Club One, Savannah's most out-of-the-closet gay nightclub.
As for why WJCL, Bronstein said "mainly because the story here is so compelling. This is a station that's in a whole lot more trouble than Odessa, and we have the chance to be in when the changes are about to happen."
So far, he said, he likes what he's had to work with. "It's a good-looking staff here, and they all POP on camera," he said.
Bronstein, camera man Craig DeLeval and production assistant Matthew Taylor - a recent Savannah College of Art and Design grad who is getting some national experience with the local project - shadow different aspects of the newscast throughout the week. They tagged along for election-night coverage, but Savannah City Council races were basically a snooze this year. They got better material when they shadowed the coverage of a labor protest in front of Paula Deen's The Lady and Sons Restaurant - a rare opportunity to show a local story involving people a national audience is likely to recognize. And they're also there for the mundane, like the daily news meetings, where staff members outline upcoming stories and pose questions like "How long can someone be listed in critical condition?" and "What's the history of the DeRenne-widening controversy."
Bronstein said a second crew from his company is due in early next year to step up the gathering of material.
TV station ratings live or die by the ratings books produced by the A.C. Nielson Company in November, February and May. The production schedule takes the reality show, "Making News: Savannah Style," from the first of those ratings periods to the last.
"I kind of hope, for Michael's sake, it's a happy ending," he said of the ratings race.
Sullivan, however, takes a longer view. Moving substantially in local rankings is likely to be the work of a few years, not a few months, he said.
Change began at WJCL earlier this year when it was bought by New Vision Broadcasting, which has demonstrated an interest in fixing the traditionally deficient news performance at the station. Some new equipment is already on board, and a spate of on-air personnel changes began shortly after the acquisition. And, the station management has begun shopping for the site for a new building.
"We're out of the flow of stuff here," Sullivan said of the stations' far Southside location off Abercorn Extension. "We're stuck between car places."
That location made more sense when WJCL was locally owned by the late J.C. Lewis, whose Ford dealership was a neighbor. But the station has been owned by absentee corporate owners since the mid-1990s.
What's in it for the station? Not money, at least not to any of the local faces. Exposure, perhaps, and a chance to see their industry from the receiving end are the big benefits. There's an irony in having reporters from the station with the lowest ratings get national exposure on the TV Guide Network.
"It's worth the risk," Sullivan said.
And make no mistake about it - risk there is. Reality television is known for warts-and-all coverage, and even all-warts-all-the-time coverage, depending on the show. WJCL's staff won't know what they're in for until the show debuts on June 8. They might get a hint from the station's Web site, where the promo blurb reads: "Premiering June 8, 2008, Making News: Savannah Style will go behind the scenes of ABC affiliate WJCL-TV and Fox affiliate WTGS-TV, a rare two-in-one station, which was hit by scandal when its GM got nabbed for embezzling, and is now trying to rebound with a self-professed hippie at the helm. So that's what Reverend Jim is up to now."
Cable customers will know the TV Guide Network as the televised rollboard of the upcoming TV schedules. Atop a split screen, the network has begun to run, first, content, and now, original content.