Channel 9 News Director Dave Roberts has been shown the door at the Gannett-owned station as the CBS affiliate's once-dominant news operation struggles with dipping ratings and an anchor team whose future is in question.
WUSA General Manager Darryll Green informed the staff of Roberts's departure in a meeting yesterday morning and read from a memo written by Roberts: "The road to success can be rocky at times, but rest assured that there is a nucleus of talented people throughout the station that will ultimately meet the challenge."
In an interview yesterday, Green would not comment on the details of Roberts's departure, saying only, "We wish him well and thank him for all his hard work."
Roberts, who joined WUSA in 2000 and had worked under Green for just a year, had a positive outlook -- publicly, at least -- on his removal. "There are always ups and downs in the business," he said yesterday from his Upper Marlboro home. "But, regardless, I am very grateful for all the opportunities and support I've been given by Gannett." He leaves after nearly nine years with the company; he started at Gannett as news director at Atlanta's NBC affiliate.
Roberts's exit comes a week after Senior Executive Producer Susan Truitt, the number two person on the news staff, tendered her resignation at WUSA for family reasons, leaving the station with something of a management gap. Executive Producer Randal Stanley, who worked under Green at the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate in Buffalo, will serve as the station's "point person" during an unusually busy August news period.
Roberts leaves WUSA after four turbulent years during which a number of anchors and reporters, old and new, left the station while ratings remained flat or declined.
Shortly after he arrived, Roberts overhauled the entire news lineup, most notably booting veterans Andrea Roane and Mike Buchanan from afternoon and evening newscasts to the sunrise shift.
Although the strategy worked at first as ratings increased, viewership eventually dropped. In December, Buchanan was let go after more than three decades at the station and was later hired by WJLA as a reporter.
Since then, the station's morning newscast has dropped to dead last in the most recent ratings period, behind WRC, WTTG and an improving WJLA.
The station's 5 p.m. newscast has also finished at the bottom, hampered by a low-rated lead-in combination of the syndicated "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Inside Edition."
Longtime sportscaster Frank Herzog, who first joined WUSA in 1969 and became the station's top sports anchor last year, was recently told by management that his contract would not be renewed when it expires at the end of November. Green had no comment on Herzog's replacement yesterday.
Under Roberts's reign, the station has gone through three lead sportscasters: Jess Atkinson was dismissed in 2002, Steve Davis was removed a year later, and now Herzog is leaving.
Roberts's biggest coup was wooing popular anchor Tracey Neale from rival WTTG when her contract expired last year. WUSA is hoping Neale can resurrect the station's sagging ratings at 6 and 11 p.m.
WUSA finished last at 6 p.m. in the recent ratings book but salvaged a second-place finish at 11 p.m., behind WRC. (WTTG finished second in late night but airs its news an hour earlier, at 10.)
Neale is expected to start next month, but it is still unclear whether she will be teamed with 35-year veteran Gordon Peterson, whose contract expires at the end of the year.
Peterson could not be reached for comment; his lawyer, Bob Barnett, declined to elaborate on Peterson's future with the station, saying, "Gordon and the station are in negotiations for a continuation of their relationship."
Roberts got his start in the television business in 1978 as a production assistant at Detroit's NBC affiliate. He moved to Dayton's ABC station in 1986 and a year later was promoted to news director, the first African American in Ohio to hold that position.
In 1992, Roberts moved to Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL, where he made that station a contender for first place in the ratings. In 1996, he became news director at Gannett-owned NBC affiliate WXIA in Atlanta, where he enjoyed similar ratings success.