Photo courtsey WRIC TV-8
Gene Cox wasn't ready to leave the anchor desk at WWBT-12; he was pushed.
Cox says that news director Nancy Kent Smith took him to dinner after a 6 p.m. broadcast in April 2011 to talk about his future with the station. At the time, he'd been taken off the newscasts at 4, 5 and 11 p.m. and was essentially a part-timer.
"As we finished our meal, Nancy leaned across the table and explained that my days as an anchor were over," Cox wrote in a follow-up email after a phone interview. "Instead, the station had considered other duties for me: special reports, editorials, speeches, substituting on the desk, an assortment of things to keep me with 12, just not as primary anchor."
He adds that he hadn't fielded any complaints about his performance, and the 6 p.m. newscast has long outpaced those of its two local competitors, WRIC and WTVR, in ratings. "I would guess they didn't want to pay an old guy," Cox says. He doesn't know who made the decision to take him off the anchor desk, and he notes that Smith may have been delivering the message from her bosses.
Smith says she can't discuss this conversation since it was part of a contract negotiation, but she says it was Cox's decision to quit on Dec. 31, 2011. She adds that she had hoped for Cox to move into a "Tom Brokaw role," a sort of elder statesman for the station. Smith says she's still a big fan.
Cox says he tried to make the best of the situation, which seemed to allow him a way to step down from anchoring after 33 years without an abrupt ending. Instead, Cox says, he'd pitch stories and other ideas, but his calls and emails often went unreturned.
He got called in to do a half-day recording session for MeTV, one of 12's subchannels, and a few feature reports aired on the news. Smith says that he was unavailable when they called him a few times to substitute as anchor.
Cox says he's not angry about how he was treated and still has close friends among the staff at WWBT, but he and the management disagreed on his value as an anchor.
His anchor contract's noncompete clause expires on July 31, and the very next day, Cox will debut on WRIC-8.
He will anchor the 5:30 p.m. newscast with Amy Lacey on a two- or three-month trial basis starting Aug. 1. Cox says he hopes to improve 8's ratings during that time period, which 12 leads by a large margin. After the trial period, either party has the opportunity to back out, but Cox says he hopes to stay on.
Meanwhile, at WTVR-6, Emmy-winning
anchor/reporter Sam Brock appears to have one foot out the door. He's looking to work outside of Richmond, but he wasn't able to elaborate further at press-time. Although he'll be reporting and filling in as anchor where needed, he will no longer anchor the 5 and 5:30 p.m. newscasts beginning Aug. 6.
A few days after Cox's announcement, WTVR general manager Stephen Hayes confirmed to me that Julie Bragg was returning to the station after two years off television and would join Lorenzo Hall as the anchor team on, yes, the 5 and 5:30 p.m. newscasts. That places Bragg in competition with her former co-anchor at 12, Cox.
Both Bragg and Cox express admiration and friendship for one another, and WRIC's Juan Conde, who anchors at 6 and 11 p.m., says he doesn't feel at all threatened by Cox's presence at the station.
"The essence of the [supposed] drama is that we're going to be in some kind of battle," Conde says of Cox. "The answer is no. I don't know anybody who's upset about this." Like many at 8, he hopes Cox will help ratings.
WWBT general manager Kym Grinnage, who's been at 12 since 1990, doesn't plan any changes in reaction to other stations' moves. "We remain a very dominant No. 1," he notes. "We never focus on what we're doing based on what the competition is doing."
Citing policy at Raycom Media, Grinnage declined to get into the reasons for the non-renewal of Cox's anchor contract but said it was not a situation like the 2008 layoffs of Gene Lepley and Ben Hamlin. "We were doing some constriction in the news department" then, Grinnage says. He says that 12 still values longtime employees, pointing to Sabrina Squire and Jim Duncan and other staffers who work off-air.
As for Cox's move to 8, Grinnage says, "It's a good opportunity, [but] Gene is always going to be part of the NBC 12 family."
"I think it's great," Cox notes with excitement. "It just makes the market more interesting."