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Ratings Whiz Severino’s Big Ticket Deal

Times Staff Writer

John Clement Severino, the 52-year-old veteran manager of KABC-TV Channel 7, confirmed Wednesday that he is leaving the station that he transformed into Southern California’s ratings leader to become president of cable television’s Prime Ticket sports programming channel.

“It’s tough to leave here. I mean, 23 years. That’s a lifetime,” Severino said in a brief telephone interview. A news conference has been scheduled for 5 p.m. today to further detail his plans with the cable company.

Word of Severino’s impending departure from ABC/Capital Cities Communications began to leak Tuesday following his informal announcement to the KABC staff that he would become Prime Ticket’s chief executive officer.

“No comment,” Severino said Wednesday when asked about rumors that his new salary will be $3 million a year. “Jesus Christmas, why you gotta ask a question like that?”

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He said he was recruited for the Prime Ticket job and had not sought to leave KABC. His final day at the station will be Sept. 16.

Prime Ticket is an all-sports channel, jointly owned by Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Denver businessman Bill Daniels. The company broadcasts Lakers games, UCLA and USC football and the Los Angeles Kings.

“I just got the call from John on Sunday,” Kenneth M. Johnson, president of ABC’s West Coast owned-and-operated stations, said Wednesday. “We’re sorry John is leaving. He’s a great guy and a tremendous operator.”

Johnson said that there are no immediate plans to hire a replacement, however. KABC will be run by department heads until a successor is selected.

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Last spring, Johnson was faced with a similar replacement problem at ABC’s San Francisco station, KGO, when general manager Leonard Spagnoletti resigned. He was only recently replaced by Jim Topping, a television executive from outside the ABC/Cap Cities “family.”

“What everyone at the station is wondering now is whether we’re going to get someone new or an old Cap Cities dark suiter,” said one KABC employee who asked not to be named.

Severino took over third-place KABC in 1974 and pioneered the “Eyewitness News Team” concept that took Channel 7 to the top of the Nielsen ratings. He was elevated in 1981 to the presidency of the ABC-TV network, then returned in 1985 to what he called “the best job in broadcasting.”

“Sev is the best that I have ever seen at running a TV station,” KABC news anchor Ann Martin told The Times Wednesday. “He has great instincts at knowing what it is that people want to watch and more than anything else he was never afraid to take a chance.”

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Television critics, who regularly slam KABC’s sensationalistic news and “infotainment” programming, such as “Eye on L.A.,” have frequently singled out Severino as the architect of the station’s lowest-common-denominator programming. He has often been criticized as being willing to program the broadcast equivalent of supermarket tabloid stories in an effort to attract a larger audience.

Sixteen months ago, Severino was publicly chastised and KABC was penalized in the May ratings “sweeps” by A. C. Nielsen Co. for broadcasting a series on Nielsen families. Nielsen officials argued that the series was an attempt to get those very Nielsen families to tune in to KABC while their TV sets were being monitored for ratings by Nielsen--a bold and transparent move to artificially “hype” the ratings.

Since the Nielsen family episode, KABC’s news and infotainment ratings have generally eroded while those of its two chief rivals, KNBC Channel 4 and KCBS Channel 2, have risen. Though its margin has narrowed, however, KABC remains Southern California’s top-rated TV station.

Three years ago, the conservatively managed Capital Cities Communications took over the far more liberally managed ABC in a leveraged buyout, triggering a series of layoffs and other cost-cutting maneuvers. Until now, Severino’s ability to generate large ratings and larger profits has kept KABC relatively untouched.

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Former KABC newsman Wayne Satz said that he foresees an overall improvement in the quality of KABC programming.

“What this means is that there’s some hope now for Channel 7,” he said. Satz sued Severino and the station last year following his firing as Channel 7’s chief investigative reporter and later reached an out-of-court settlement.


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