Clarification: A previous version of this story failed to specify that the station’s drop to third in the local ratings was in the 25-54 age demographic only. The story has been updated.
After more than 40 years of anchoring newscasts on Washington TV stations, Maureen Bunyan got some startling news of her own last week: Her employer, Sinclair Broadcast Group, told her that next month would be her last at WJLA (Channel 7), Bunyan’s TV home since 1999.
The station’s management decided it no longer needed Bunyan, 71, a pioneering figure who was among the first African American women in the nation to anchor a local evening newscast in the late 1970s. And just that quickly, Bunyan met the fate that has befallen other members of her once-familiar news team at WJLA since Sinclair bought the station in mid-2014.
First it was Arch Campbell, WJLA’s entertainment reporter and a 40-year veteran of local news. Then it was veteran sportscaster Tim Brant, then anchor Leon Harris. Anchor Gordon Peterson — one of the deans of Washington TV news — retired in 2014 rather than work for Sinclair.
Sinclair, based outside Baltimore, has grown rapidly over the past dozen or so years by buying TV station chains across the country. It now stands as the largest operator in the nation, with 173 outlets spread over 81 markets. Its $985 million purchase of WJLA, and seven other stations owned by Allbritton Communications, of Arlington, was one of the largest of its many deals.
But all that acquisition, fueled largely with borrowed money, has saddled Sinclair with some $4.93 billion in liabilities, necessitating a sharp eye on overhead at its many stations.
The rapid departure of so many familiar faces at a station is unusual in the TV news business, for which conventional wisdom holds that audiences flock to familiar anchors and personalities. Stability is a virtue; anchors at big-city stations tend to stay for several years.
“The traditional business model for network-affiliated TV stations has been to sink roots in the community, develop strong relationships with the audience and build goodwill that pays off in good ratings and high income,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a lecturer at Georgetown University’s law school and a public-interest advocate. “The business is usually so profitable that they don’t have to squeeze the last dollar out of the station. But Sinclair does.”
He added, “For the Maureen Bunyans of the world, for the people who put in all those years and are proud of their work, it must hurt them to watch these buccaneers take over.”
Sinclair denied any connection between its personnel decisions and its financial condition.
“When we acquired WJLA two years ago, we studied the market carefully and set a course to make WJLA a top-tier station in D.C.,” said Dan Mellon, the station’s general manager. “That plan required realigning our priorities and resources to reach our audiences where they are and with content that matters to them.”
Combined with sister cable station NewsChannel 8, WJLA — known as ABC7 — maintains the largest TV news operation in the region, he said. Sinclair has invested about $2.6 million in studios, weather-and-traffic systems, cameras, editing equipment and digital assets, Mellon said.
He added: “Decisions on on-air talent at WJLA have been made because of our desire to boost ratings.”
In fact, WJLA, which used to finish behind NBC-owned WRC (Channel 4) during evening newscasts, has fallen to third behind WRC and Fox-owned WTTG (5) during the later hours in the coveted age 25-54 age demographic. WJLA’s overall ratings, accounting for all newscasts and viewers, remain second in the market.
Mellon said the station’s ratings have been improving; its biggest gains have been in the competitive morning hours, where its “Good Morning Washington” program has risen from fourth to a fight for first, he said.
But news employees at the station say morale has fallen as veterans have walked out the door.
Gordon Peterson spent just five months under Sinclair’s management before deciding to choose retirement. “After taking a hard look at Sinclair Broadcasting . . . I concluded that I would not be comfortable working in the new environment,” he said Monday. He declined to elaborate.
Sinclair’s management told Bunyan that it intends to exercise a “window” in her contract that enables it to end the agreement before its full term, according to people familiar with the arrangement. Bunyan had a three-year deal that ends next year, but the clause entitled the company to end her employment early.
Harris and Peterson both co-anchored with Bunyan at WJLA; Peterson did so for decades at WUSA and WJLA.
On Friday, in another cutback, the station laid off several other news employees, including Alex Parker, its executive sports producer and a host of a sports-talk program on NewsChannel 8.
Bunyan is the second-longest-serving anchor in Washington after Jim Vance, who joined WRC in 1969 and remains its leading anchor.
She started her local career at WUSA (then known as WTOP-TV) in 1973 as a reporter and weekend anchor after stints at stations in Boston and New York. She became the station’s lead anchor with Peterson in 1978, forming a ratings-leading team that included sportscaster Glenn Brenner and weather forecaster Gordon Barnes.
Her resignation from WUSA in 1995 over a salary dispute contributed to the station’s fall in the ratings and the rise of rival WRC. News4, as it is known, has been the dominant local news station in Washington ever since, led by Vance and co-anchor Doreen Gentzler.
Bunyan, who anchors WJLA’s 6 p.m. news, left the local airwaves for four years after her departure from WUSA but returned in 1999 at WJLA, eventually reuniting with Peterson.
In addition to anchoring the news, Bunyan — a winner of seven local Emmys — is a co-founder of the International Women’s Media Foundation and the National Association of Black Journalists. She was inducted into the latter organization’s hall of fame in 2014.
Bunyan also is perhaps the only American journalist who has received a knighthood. A native of Aruba, she was knighted and inducted into the Order of Orange-Nassau, a Dutch chivalric honor, for her educational efforts on behalf of the United States and Aruba, a Caribbean nation that maintains its historical ties to the Netherlands.
Bunyan, who is of Guyanese descent, was born in Aruba and grew up in Wisconsin.