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WNYers Don't Flock to Pope Coverage

By Alan Pergament

Confessions of a dial-switcher on the day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope:

I was very curious this morning to see what the local news ratings were Wednesday and whether Channel 2 got any boost because Maryalice Demler (seen below) was the only local reporter-anchor to be in Vatican City for the big announcement.

It was a big story, especially for the 630,000 Catholics in eight Western New York counties. That’s probably why Channel 4 brought Jacquie Walker in from vacation and why Channel 2’s Melissa Holmes was back on an early evening newscast.

However, it looks pretty much like a typical news night ratings-wise.

The biggest ratings boost occurred at around 3 p.m. when the broadcast networks interrupted syndicated programming with the big announcement of the selection of the pope. Channel 2 dominated the time period, out-rating Channel 4 and Channel 2 combined.

However, the collective 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news ratings were a little low.


Of course, news ratings often go down after Daylight Savings Time kick in.

Channel 2 won at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. with ratings in the normal range. Channel 4 won by a tenth of a point at 6 p.m. with a rating lower than normal, at 10 p.m. on sister station with a higher rating than usual, and at 11 p.m. when ratings were a little lower than usual.

Channel 2’s half-hour special at 7:30 p.m. on the election of the pope without much time for promotion had a healthy rating much higher than the station typically gets in that time period but it wasn’t half as large as the rating for juggernaut “Jeopardy” on Channel 4 at the same time.

As a rule, journalists are taught to stay out of the story they are covering. Demler can be forgiven Wednesday for ignoring that rule and explaining how a “cradle Catholic” – that’s what she called herself -- felt when the new Pope first appeared in St. Peter’s Square.

She called the scene Wednesday “exhilarating” and “absolutely electrifying,” noted how many younger Catholics were in the crowd and interviewed two Western New Yorkers who were there. One was a former Channel 2 intern who gives tours in Rome now. Demler featured her in a Tuesday story. The tour guide just told viewers how difficult it was to get to the Square on short notice.

The other WNYer was identified as Deacon Mike McKeating, who once upon a time was a Buffalo News reporter. And he hasn’t lost his reporting instinct, instantly noting that the selection of the first Pope from Latin America made sense because “42 percent of all Catholics are in South America.”

Demler was one of three reporters for Gannett covering the story for all of the media company’s 19 markets. Even if the ratings weren’t all that much to write home about it, Channel 2 got its owners’ money worth out of Demler just by the promotional value. As usual, her presentation was very good. She has a stylish way of often stating the obvious. However, the interviews and stories by Channel 2’s Scott Brown and other reporters back home about where the Catholic Church is now and where it appears to be headed had much more substance.

Channel 2‘s 7:30 p.m. special Wednesday was clearly trying to capitalize on Demler’s trip to Rome. Most of the 30-minute program was a rehash of stories that the station ran during the week. Brown’s localizing of a New York Times/ CBS poll about how the views of the majority of American Catholics on letting priests marry, letting women be priests and allowing birth control differ from traditional Catholic teachings and values was one of the more interesting stories of the week. It included an enlightening and candid interview with Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo.    

At the end of the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams Wednesday, the anchor explained the Cardinals are able to do something that almost everyone else in the modern world can’t do: keep a secret.

“One of the last remaining global spectacles is the naming of the pope,” said Williams. “It is one of the things unchanged in the modern era of social media. It remains a surprise until the very end when a new Pope is revealed to all of us at once.”

Truer words were never spoken.

I confess that when I had a choice of watching live coverage of the pope coming out on the balcony on all the networks and watching a Syracuse University postseason basketball game, I choose my religion. I watched the Orange beat Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. Forgive me. But I did
change channels in time to see a CNN crawl that noted that the new Pope had resigned as Archbishop of Buenos Aires because of his age. It seemed a little odd that he was too old to be an Archbishop and young enough to be pope.

NBC’s Matt Lauer delicately brought up the age issue this morning on "Today" with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City, saying seeing the new Pope on the balcony Wednesday “visually didn’t exactly scream a modern church.”

Cardinal Dolan handled the statement skillfully and added “We got a pope. We got a darn good pope.”

Much was made of the fact that Pope Francis was the first Jesuit pope, which meant the local stations went off to the local Jesuit college, Canisius, to interview students and faculty. The Rev. Patrick Lynch educated viewers on one big reason why there haven’t been any Jesuit Popes. He said that it is very unusual for Jesuits to seek higher office.

Channel 7 smartly went over to Niagara Street to interview Hispanics about their pride in seeing the election of the first Latin American elected pope. I’m not sure if any other station took that angle because I was dial-switching.

If you wanted to hear a discouraging word about the new pope, you just had to head online or go to social media. What you thought people on Twitter and Facebook only bash the Sabres? The Huffington Post quickly ran an article about a controversy that didn’t put the pope in the most positive light.

I thought Channel 2 came to its senses Wednesday and dropped its ridiculous “10 at 10” format of carrying the most important stories in backwards order. But I was told by station management that no such miracle had occurred. It was dropped for one night because of the big news of a new pope being elected.

Finally, am I the only one who wondered what one of WNY’s most famous supporters of the Jesuits – the late Tim Russert – would have thought about the election of the first Jesuit pope? Somehow, I expect Russert is up there smiling.

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About Talkin' TV

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament

Alan Pergament has continued to blog about television topics since retiring in 2010 as The News' television writer after 28 years on the beat. From local on-air personalities to ratings to the latest on network and cable programming, he keeps you informed.

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