The end of an era, and beginning of this one (Part A of this one)

It was 20 years ago tonight. Not exactly. It was actually four days off, on Nov. 25, but what really matters is it was the night before Thanksgiving in 1998.

I had been producing the 11pm news at CBS affiliate WFSB-3 in Connecticut. It was my last newscast there, before moving to Philadelphia – and also the last weathercast for the legendary Hilton Kaderli, who retired that night.

In fact, Hilton and I just got off the phone. He and his family are doing great. He mentioned he had just been doing a bit of work in his study, and his wife is working on their Thanksgiving turkey as I publish this!

The reason for both of us leaving the same night was, back then, TV stations depended on Nielsen ratings. That company picked times around four months to measure viewership. Then, starting on a Thursday and ending on a Wednesday – every November, February, May and July – networks and stations would go all out to show you their best programming along with their sexiest, dirtiest, most dangerous and practically anything to get you to watch. No vacations were allowed, so the A-team would be on every newscast, every day and night.

In 1998 – for the first and last time, I believe – Nielsen ended the ratings period on the night before Thanksgiving rather than the week before, postponing or canceling news people’s vacation plans.

Thanksgiving
We were all turkeys in 1998!

Stations still use those times to have their on-air people announce retirements, reveal health issues, and more to get you to watch – even though Nielsen now realizes there are more than four months in a year, and doesn’t ask randomly selected viewers to fill out diaries about what they watch anymore. Old habits are hard to break.

The 11pm news was arguably most important (financially, why else?) because it followed the network’s huge primetime audience, and had 35 minutes to fill commercials, rather than the typical 30 for a half hour. Stations would then sell ads based on the ratings for at least the next few months, while also looking at year-to-year. People’s jobs depended on good ratings.

This was my first job outside of Florida, my first time in New England cold and my first time living away from home (except for college).

Downtown Hartford was basically a dead center of a doughnut, but not the night before Thanksgiving. (Why weren’t we live from outside?) The day before Thanksgiving was still busy with travel. (Yes, we had a live picture.)

Since then, the station moved from there, two towns south to Rocky Hill. (Yes, Weathersfield and Rocky Hill are towns, while Hartford is a city!)

These days, Al Terzi – the dean of Connecticut TV news, who actually spent some time in West Palm Beach – moderates a weekly political show on WTIC-Fox 61. Denise D’Ascenzo is still at it at Channel 3 after 32 years (and will always be my shiksa sister!), but gets to drive home at a decent hour. No more Nightbeat for her! We can all see and hear Joe Tessitore on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

I thank Tom Lowell, Steve Sabato and Deborah Johnson for the opportunity. I followed Tom up from Miami.

Plus, my friend Megan Robinson who followed me up and started producing weekend mornings, before becoming an executive producer in Charlotte. We went to dinner every Sunday night in a different town so we could study the state we covered.

Reporters Dennis House (now anchoring and also blogging, so I get a weekly email to keep up with the area!), Jennifer Watson (in Atlanta), Melissa Francis (Fox Business) and Susan Raff (still there!) found news or followed up on developing stories, sometimes live so late and further away than they would’ve liked to have been.

In the beginning of my time at WFSB, someone you may have heard of – Gayle King – returned from home and her then-little ones to anchor after her 5:30 newscast because Denise was on maternity leave. (Now, that means her baby girl is old enough to drink!) Of course, Gayle went on to the syndicated Gayle King Show and now anchors CBS This Morning.

Assignment editor Andre Hepkins left WFSB and returned as a reporter. Now, he’s a big-time anchor in Baltimore. And Dana Luby kept getting promotion after promotion and recently went from long-time news director of the station to its general manager! Plus, Mike Guerrieri (Vice President of Creative Services at NBC’s Miami station) with the prime-time teases that kept so many viewers up longer than they would’ve liked.

Of course, I’ll never forget the late, great newscast director Jeff Bright. And I’ll never be able to mention everyone whose work went into making the newscast such a success, so please forgive me.

We were a #1 team. I should’ve made more of it. Come to think of it, I think I fought like hell with every one of the people mentioned at least once (except Gayle)! Every one of cared that much and made each other better.

I mentioned I ended up moving to Philadelphia. I stayed six years, returned to Miami for some time before getting back to Philadelphia (for Part B, as this post’s title suggests).

Click here for how The Hartford Courant reported that day.

Now, to the video!

1 of 3: Lots of touches I remember starting, the New England Patriots’ move to Hartford(!), Hilton’s memories, and perhaps a record number of municipalities mentioned in the first tease instead of the typical three

2 of 3: Michael J. Fox reveals he has Parkinson’s and Hilton’s final forecast

3 of 3: Sports, Hilton’s final good-bye and classic clips

(Why didn’t I get an on-air mention after 19-1/2 months?)

Bonuses:

Gayle King’s friend Oprah joins Hilton on weather in 1992

And click here to read and watch the most memorable moment in WFSB history (at least involving Hilton)!

Plus, thank you to Spencer Medbery for providing most of the clips!

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3 thoughts on “The end of an era, and beginning of this one (Part A of this one)

    1. Good question! You said “first” and 1992 was not a good year to graduate college. The economy was bad and nobody was hiring. I’d practiced being “on TV” in college but didn’t like it. Besides, you can’t be a good anchor without being a good reporter. I just wanted to do anything without going outside.

      I applied everywhere and got a job at the station closest to my parents’ house, WSVN in Miami. It was the first of the big stations to go from a big network to Fox, so they through everything up against the wall into news – and it worked. They put on more news than anybody, very flashy stuff (it was Miami!), and people watched.

      It took two years out of college but I was hired to record video feeds on tape: microwave for local live shots, satellite for out of the area (think O.J. Simpson or anything from New York), and regularly scheduled news feeds throughout the day because the local TV station didn’t have crews all over the world. These days, there are no tapes. In an old big city, it would’ve been a highly paid union job. Instead, I got $4.25 an hour, which was the minimum wage, for 30 hours a week, so part-time without benefits.

      But I tried to be the best, learn from everyone and find what made me unique (and as irreplaceable as you can get in TV news). I became a writer working overnights, and then assignment editor at the same time. Eventually, the producer for our live coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial (which we carried every afternoon) left for her first on-air job and I got hers.

      When the trial ended, I started producing newscasts: first, part of the morning; then, the noon; and eventually the 5:30pm.

      I never liked Florida so when an old boss offered me the 11pm newscast in Connecticut, I took it. New England was a big adjustment but I brought a lot of what I learned at what was the hottest station in the country. Doing the late news meant I didn’t have to compete with any other producers’ newscasts because I got all the stories I wanted. (It wasn’t like the 5pm producer got the story the 5:30 producer wanted.)

      It was also a different type of station (CBS in Connecticut was much more conservative than Miami) so I learned about producing different types of stories for that audience. It went well, I had a great team and the rest is history!

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