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Manager who coached WPXI out of last place retiring this month

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When WPXI general manager John Howell arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, Channel 11 didn't have anywhere to go but up.

John Howell, general manager of WPXI-TV, came to Channel 11 in 1984. He has helped transform the station, once dead last, into one that is often first. Howell, who will turn 55 Dec. 24, will retire this month. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

How bad were things?

So bad, syndicators didn't want their programs airing on Channel 11, Howell said.

So bad, Channel 11 wasn't even competitive in the all-important news ratings.

So bad, the station was a joke -- literally.

"There used to be a joke that God created KDKA and KD got tired of being alone, so He made WTAE. TAE got tired of being in last place, so He made PXI," recalled Al Blinke, currently KDKA news director, who ran WPXI's news division for six years in the early '90s.

But as Howell prepares to retire this month after almost 18 years with the station, a lot has changed. No longer the third-place laughingstock, Channel 11 isn't just competitive, it's often No. 1 in both households and demographic ratings.

Though November saw a ratings resurgence for WTAE, which won both the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, Channel 11 had a major victory in February, beating KDKA at 6 p.m. for only the second time in its history.

"We came [to Pittsburgh] at about the same time, and he walked into a television station that couldn't get arrested," said James Hefner, general manager of WTAE. "But you've got to give the devil his due, he's done a terrific job bringing that station back to life."

KDKA's Blinke said Howell always claimed he'd retire at age 55, which he'll be on Dec. 24. He said Howell believed in a vision and direction for WPXI and was consistent in pursuing his goals. But Channel 11's winning strategy didn't come about overnight.

"He would always kid, 'I'm in the seventh year of my five-year plan,' " Blinke said. "It grew slowly over a long period of time, and it really changed the market."

Howell came to WPXI after stints as news director at TV stations in southern California, Detroit and Buffalo. He attended several community colleges in California but never graduated, leaving school for a job in radio in the early '70s.

Arriving at Channel 11 as the latest in a string of executives who failed to turn the station around, Howell had one distinct advantage over his predecessors: Where they were most concerned about sales, he knew news and "product." Instead of programming with an eye toward generating the most revenue, Howell insisted on creating a schedule that would maximize ratings "based on the innocent belief that if you had enough ratings, the revenue would follow."

Howell said he started down the wrong path with news when research showed no strong viewer preferences for local anchors in the mid-'80s.

"We said we'll get better talent and promote the hell out of them and this thing will be over in a couple years," Howell said. "So we started by hiring Mike [Hambrick] and Edye [Tarbox] and promoting the hell out of them and nothing was happening. Even when we got David [Johnson] and Peggy [Finnegan], who we felt were better talent, we couldn't get [the ratings] to move."

The station ultimately concluded talent doesn't motivate Pittsburgh viewers to pick one station over another. The station kept doing research, and, ultimately, an executive from Cox, the station's parent company, stood up in the WPXI conference room and summed up the results: "After three months and $40,000 trying to figure out what viewers want in a local newscast, we now know they want it to be local and they want it to be news."

"No features, no fluff" coupled with promises of "More news, more often" from the "24 Hour News Source" became the edict at Channel 11. Howell also took a lesson from his days sailing.

"Assuming the same boats with the same wind in a race, if you go the way the guy in front of you goes, you won't ever get past him," Howell said. "You have to go another direction. ... I've always believed you had to go be something else in order for you to be noticed, to catch on. What we did 10 years ago was we became something [the other stations] were not, and that was what got us into the game."

News was the key, with several expansions that were firsts for Pittsburgh: Local news on Saturday and Sunday mornings and weekday evenings at 5 and 5:30 p.m.

Howell said this allowed viewers who didn't watch Channel 11 regularly to sample the station at times when competitors didn't have newscasts. The addition of PCNC in the mid-'90s and its 10 p.m. newscast continued that initiative.

Another effort to offer viewers something different was the advent of the KDKA-derided contests begun by Channel 11 and later adopted by Channel 4.

"Typically there are three to five share points out there who like contests and typically they're older," Howell said. "I do suspect they did help us get some viewing. One of the tricks, when you're as poorly viewed as we were, is once you're doing a good job, you have to get people to watch you so they can see that, and I think contesting helped do that. ... Now when the contest is over, we continue to win. That wasn't always true, but it is today."

He credits station manager Mark Barash and former creative services director Steve Riley with programming and marketing the station to victory. And he's proud of the station's news coverage, particularly on big stories such as the crash of USAir Flight 427 and more recently the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Howell gets accolades from some competitors for taking the station from worst to competitive for first, but he acknowledges stumbles along the way.

He said he blew at least $4 million on rerun rights to "The Cosby Show," which didn't get winning ratings. And Howell admits to cringing when he looks back on the "more tabloidy" days of Channel 11's newscast but said he's not sure WPXI could have gotten to where it is without taking that approach.

During his time at Channel 11, Howell also weathered a labor dispute with studio crews in the '80s. But the biggest botch may have been in 1987, when WPXI aired footage on its noon newscast of state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer shooting himself during a press conference.

Howell was out of town on business and heard about the decision to air the suicide unedited afterward.

"Of course I wish I'd been in town and been able to stop them from airing Budd Dwyer shooting himself," Howell said. He's quick to point out the footage ran only once on a low-rated newscast "and yet you can find hundreds of thousands of people who [claim they] saw it."

The damage was done, giving viewers a reason to have a negative impression of the station. For at least a decade, the Dwyer debacle came up in Channel 11 focus group conversations, Howell said. But no more.

Incoming general manager Ray Carter will enter a local TV news landscape that's one of the most competitive in the country, with No. 1 status frequently up for grabs.

With former Channel 11 news director Blinke adapting many of WPXI's successful formulas to once-dominant KDKA, Howell said he leaves feeling good about the station's future.

"There was a period of time when we were really struggling and we found ourselves looking at stuff they were doing and we said, 'We need to do that.' That was an awful period," Howell said. "We prefer to be the ones being copied than to be the ones copying."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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