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Hefner leaving WTAE liking television more

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Soon the James Carville-like bark of Jim Hefner will no longer be heard at WTAE.

Jim Hefner
Proud of "Pittsburgh's Talking"

After 15 years as general manager of Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate, Hefner will leave the station at the end of the week to become general manager at WRAL, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, N.C.

Hefner, 51, said the biggest change during his tenure was the marked increase in news time on every station in town. He also pointed out an equally important change: There's no longer a dominant anchor team at most stations.

"It used to be that every station had an anchor team," Hefner said. Now, most stations have two primary anchor teams, "and the morning anchor team is very important," too.

The cult of personality that used to surround local TV newspeople has changed over the years because there are simply more of them, Hefner said. "It's a double-edged sword. We wonder why it's so difficult to introduce new people, but there are so many people now for the audience to remember, whereas before it was Don Cannon and Paul Long and on KD it was Ray Tannehill and Patti Burns. Now everyone has three teams; that's true everywhere, and it's particularly true in Pittsburgh."

Cannon's departure from WTAE happened on Hefner's watch, and he acknowledged its impact.

"I don't think there's any question that Don Cannon's departure hurt the television station," Hefner said. "Measuring that is very difficult because a lot of other things were going on at the same time. We went from [ratings] diaries to meters, and WPXI made a real commitment to news."

He's thankful he won't have to worry about another change that's coming at some point.

"Replacing Joe DeNardo is not something I want to do," Hefner said. "As far as I'm concerned, Joe would be here forever, and I hope he is. I would not be looking forward to trying to replace him."

Despite a slumping economy and increased competition, Hefner said, he enjoys working in television now more than when he arrived at WTAE.

"I'm a hell of a lot smarter now than I was back then," Hefner said. "I became GM at 36, and at the time I thought I knew everything. The fact is, I didn't know anything. I enjoy it more now because I understand it better."

Hefner said he's as proud of some of his failures as of his successes, particularly when it comes to local programming such as the talk show "Pittsburgh's Talking," hosted by Ann Devlin. But Hefner said that type of show won't return in the current environment.

"People say they want local programming, but they rarely watch it," Hefner said. "I don't expect [to see more local programming] here in the current paradigm." But that could change if each station ultimately broadcasts multiple channels using digital technology.

The most likely time slot for future news expansion is 4 p.m., an hour that's been co-opted by news departments at stations in other markets (Washington, Denver, etc.).

"If it will work anywhere, it will work in Pittsburgh, but it's a hard sell," Hefner said. "Nobody's had the guts to try it yet, I suppose. It could happen in the next five years more as a result of not having anything else to put there. There's not a hue and cry for more news as there was in the morning."

On Hefner's watch, WTAE was the first local station to expand news in the morning to 6 a.m. and then 5:30 a.m. and then 5 a.m.

"We were right about how that time period has grown," he said.

Hefner said he wished Channel 4 had moved into early evening newscasts sooner.

"We should have done it two to three years earlier than we did," he said. "I didn't recognize the appetite for it. It really helped WPXI get a foothold, and we should not have allowed them to do that. It was a big mistake."

Hefner said he's proudest of the people he's brought to the station, both on the air and behind the scenes.

When former WTAE vice president of sales Rick Henry was announced as his successor earlier this month, Hefner said, he "had a little panic attack. All of a sudden it became real. I had to leave. I got right panicky, but it passed after a while. It was all sort of imagined until that moment.

"It's going to be hard to leave here, both professionally and personally," Hefner said. "Four of my children were born here. My wife and I have lived here for 18 years. When we get in the car with the moving van behind us, it's probably going to be a very teary moment."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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