By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; C01
A dramatic change may be ahead for Washington's weather forecasts. And it has nothing to do with Friday's much anticipated snowstorm.
Bob Ryan, the most-watched television weather forecaster in Washington and a fixture at WRC (Channel 4) for nearly 30 years, is considering leaving the station and jumping to rival WJLA, people familiar with the discussions said Thursday.
Ryan, 67, has held talks in recent weeks with WJLA, known as ABC 7, about teaming with its veteran meteorologist, Doug Hill, on its evening newscasts. Under one scenario, Hill would continue to handle the weather segments on the 5 and 6 p.m. news, and Ryan would take over the 11 p.m. broadcast, giving ABC 7 a "dream team" of well-known local forecasters.
Channel 7 hasn't completed a deal with Ryan yet, and negotiations could fall through, the sources emphasized. But with Ryan's contract expiring in early March, he would be free to change stations after NBC's telecast of the Winter Olympics this month.
Ryan and WJLA representatives declined to comment on Thursday. WRC's president and GM, Michael Jack, could not be reached for comment.
The loss of Ryan would be a huge blow to WRC and a dramatic coup for WJLA. Ryan, along with co-anchors Doreen Gentzler and Jim Vance and the late sportscaster George Michael, was part of the team that has made NBC 4 a ratings powerhouse for much of the past two decades.
Even with Michael's departure as the station's sports anchor in March 2007 and the decline of NBC's prime-time programs, WRC has maintained its dominance among the region's four major stations. During January, for example, it led all stations at 5, 6 and 11 p.m. -- all of which feature Ryan.
WRC's lead at 11 p.m. was especially notable because it has come despite the catastrophically weak ratings of "The Jay Leno Show," which airs immediately before the newscast five nights a week. WRC is one of the few NBC stations in the country that has not been badly damaged by Leno's anemic lead-in audience.
WRC has lost a number of its news stars in recent years because of layoffs and other budget cutbacks imposed by NBC, its New York-based parent company. Those who have renewed their contracts with the station in recent months have taken significant salary cuts -- a factor in renewal negotiations with Ryan, sources said.
In addition, a reorganization of the station's newsroom last summer led to increased workloads for on- and off-air employees. The station, for example, cut one of its meteorologists, Steve Villanueva, last year, reducing its weather staff to four forecasters. That has increased Ryan's workload; he now handles the forecasts at 4, 5, 6 and 11 p.m.
At the same time, Ryan has seen his presence diminish on WRC's Web site. Under orders from NBC in New York, the station has been using weather data from NBC-owned Weather.com, cutting out the local connection to its marquee weather anchor.
Adding Ryan to its roster could enable WJLA to overtake WRC in local news ratings. The station has typically finished second to WRC in the evening news race but hasn't been able to close the gap for several years.
Hiring Ryan would also fit WJLA's pattern of recruiting popular journalists from other local stations. Its co-anchors at 6 p.m., Gordon Peterson and Maureen Bunyan, were longtime anchors at WUSA (Channel 9) before they were lured away. WJLA also hired entertainment reporter Arch Campbell after WRC cut him loose. And Hill was WUSA's weatherman before he joined ABC 7 in 2000.
What's more, Ryan would probably be a good fit with a new local-news venture that WJLA's owner, Arlington County-based Allbritton Communications, is planning.
The company intends to fold resources from its local cable news operation, NewsChannel 8, and its political-news publication, Politico, into an all-local Web site and TV channel later this year. The venture, which is under the direction of former Washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady, is expected to have a major local-weather component. Hill and Ryan would conceivably add brand-name appeal.