In the few areas of the eastern United States where a CBS station is not receivable over-the-air, WCBS is available on satellite via DirecTV (which also provides coverage of the station to Latin American countries and through major U.S. air carriers on LiveTV) and Dish Network (which carries the station as part of All American Direct's distant network package).
WCBS-TV's history dates back to CBS' opening of experimental station W2XAB on July 21, 1931, using the mechanical television system that had been more-or-less perfected in the late 1920s. Its initial broadcast featured New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Kate Smith, and George Gershwin. The station boasted the first regular seven-day broadcasting schedule in American television, broadcasting 28 hours a week. Among its early programming included The Television Ghost (1931-1933), Helen Haynes (1931-1932) and Piano Lessons (1931-1932).
Announcer-director Bill Schudt was the station's only paid employee; all other talent was volunteer. W2XAB pioneered program development including small-scale dramatic acts, monologues, pantomime, and the use of projection slides to simulate sets. Engineer Bill Lodge devised the first synchronized sound wave for a television station in 1932, enabling W2XAB to broadcast picture and sound on a single shortwave channel instead of the two previously needed. On November 8, 1932, W2XAB broadcast the first television coverage of presidential election returns. The station suspended operations on February 20, 1933, as monochrome television transmission standards were in flux, and in the process of changing from a mechanical to an all-electronic system. W2XAB returned with an all-electronic system in 1939 from a new studio complex in Grand Central Station and a transmitter atop the Chrysler Building broadcasting on channel 2. W2XAB transmitted the first color broadcast in the United States on August 28, 1940.
On June 24, 1941, W2XAB received a commercial construction permit and program authorization as WCBW. The station went on the air at 2:30 p.m. on July 1, one hour after rival WNBT (channel 1, formerly W2XBS and now WNBC), making it the second authorized fully commercial television station in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued permits to CBS and NBC at the same time and intended WNBT and WCBW to sign on simultaneously on July 1, so no one station could claim to be the "first". WCBW's initial broadcast was the first local newscast aired on a commercial station in the country. Its assigned frequency was 60-66 MHz, now known as channel 3 but then referred to as Channel 2 in the 1940-46 alignment of the VHF band.
Program schedules were irregular through the summer and early fall of 1941. Regular daily operations began on October 29 and WCBW received a full license to cover its construction permit and commercial program authorization on March 10, 1942. After the war, the FCC re-allocated the television and FM bands. WCBW closed down its operation on the old channel 2 at the end of February 1946 (the 60-66 mHz band had been re-allocated to WPTZ in Philadelphia) in order to move to a new channel 2 at 54-60 MHz. It quickly began operation on the new frequency, where it remained from the spring of 1946 until the end of analog full power television service in the late spring of 2009.
The call letters were changed to WCBS-TV on November 1, 1946, after the FCC allowed television stations owned by radio stations in the same city to use the same call letters as the radio station with the suffix - TV - it is the only station in the CBS-owned television station to have been built from the ground up by the network.
On February 26, 1951, WCBS-TV became the first station to broadcast a regularly scheduled feature film series, The Late Show. On August 11, 1951, WCBS-TV broadcast the first baseball game on color television, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves from Ebbets Field. As were all color programs at the time, it was transmitted via a field-sequential color system developed by CBS. Signals transmitted this way could not be seen on existing black-and-white sets. The CBS color system was scrapped after the FCC embraced the alternative RCA all-electronic dot sequential system, which was fully compatible with the existing monochrome television standard, late in 1953. However, CBS telecast few programs in color, either locally or on the network, until the mid-1960s when color receivers began to grow in popularity.
In May 1997, the station adopted the "CBS 2" branding, along with sister stations KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and WBBM-TV in Chicago, while retaining a unique and distinctive logo. The practice of CBS-owned stations placing the network identity ahead of their local identity would end up being known as the "Viacom Mandate" (later the "CBS Mandate").
WCBS-TV was the only major New York City television station to remain on the air during the terror attacks that ultimately destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Unlike its competitors, channel 2 had long maintained a full-powered backup transmitter at the Empire State Building after moving its main transmitter to the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1975. The station's coverage of the attacks was also simulcast nationally on Viacom (which owned CBS at the time) cable network VH1 that day. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, WCBS-TV was briefly the only full-coverage over-the-air television service operating in New York City, although the station lent transmission time to other stations who had lost their transmitters until they found suitable backup equipment and locations. The backup transmitter had been put into operation once before, when the World Trade Center bombing of February 26, 1993 knocked most of the area's stations off the air for a week.
On December 12, 2011, CBS Television Stations announced its intent to purchase Riverhead, Long Island-licensed WLNY-TV (channel 55), later announced for a purchase price of $55 million, creating a duopoly with WCBS-TV. The company announced that it would add additional on-air staff and expand WLNY's local news programming (at the time, that station had only an 11 p.m. newscast). The FCC approved the sale on January 31, 2012, and CBS took control of the station on March 30. WLNY suspended its own news operations the previous day and began airing WCBS-TV produced newscasts on July 2, 2012.
WCBS-TV discontinued regular programming on its analog signal, over VHF channel 2, at 2 p.m. on June 12, 2009, as part of the federally mandated transition from analog to digital television. The station's digital signal relocated from its pre-transition UHF channel 56, which was among the high band UHF channels (52-69) that were removed from broadcasting use as a result of the transition, to UHF channel 33, using PSIP to display WCBS-TV's virtual channel as 2 on digital television receivers. Since the station qualified for the nightlight clause in the DTV Delay Act, WCBS kept its analog signal on for one month to provide public service announcements, permanently shutting it down during the early morning hours of July 13, 2009; this possibly made it the last full power NTSC broadcast television station in the United States to discontinue analog transmissions.
WCBS-TV currently has a construction permit for a digital fill-in translator on channel 22 in Plainview, Long Island, which will serve portions of eastern and central Long Island where WCBS-TV's signal is affected by the presence of WFSB, a CBS affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut which also broadcasts on channel 33.
On October 21, 2014, CBS and Weigel Broadcasting announced the launch of a new digital subchannel service called Decades, scheduled to launch on all CBS-owned stations on May 25, 2015, including on WCBS-TV on channel 2.2. The channel is co-owned by CBS and Weigel (owner of CBS affiliate WDJT-TV in Milwaukee), with Weigel being responsible for distribution to non-CBS-owned stations. It will air programs from the extensive library of CBS Television Distribution, including archival footage from CBS News.
WCBS-TV presently broadcasts 31 and half hours of locally-produced newscasts each week (with five hours on weekdays and 2 and half hours each on Saturdays and Sundays). Like other CBS-owned stations, WCBS-TV offers a web only newscast called "CBS 2 at Your Desk", available weekdays at 9 a.m. Also, available are streamlined editions of the noon, 5 and 6, and the 11 p.m. newscasts. There is also a "LoHud Report" edition of "At Your Desk", operated by WCBS-TV and LoHud.com, the website for The Journal News, a Gannett Company-owned newspaper covering the lower Hudson Valley. The Journal News has a partnership with the station where WCBS-TV uses their offices for their Westchester Bureau, and The Journal News gets a 30-second promotion during the 6 p.m. newscast for the next day's top story.
WCBS-TV cooperates with sister station KYW-TV in Philadelphia in the production and broadcast of statewide New Jersey political debates. When the two stations broadcast a statewide office debate, such as for Governor or United States Senate, they will pool resources and have anchors or reporters from both stations participate in the debate. Additionally, the two stations cooperate in the gathering of news in New Jersey where their markets overlap; sharing reporters, live trucks and helicopters.
Upon becoming commercial station WCBW in 1941, the station broadcast two daily news programs, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. weekdays, anchored by Richard Hubbell. Most of the newscasts featured Hubbell reading a script with only occasional cutaways to a map or still photograph. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, WCBW (which was usually off the air on Sunday to give the engineers a day off), took to the air at 8:45 p.m. that Sunday with an extensive special report. The national emergency even broke down the unspoken wall between CBS radio and television. WCBW executives convinced radio announcers and experts such as George Fielding Elliot and Linton Wells to come down to the Grand Central Station studios during the evening and give information and commentary on the attack. The WCBW special report that night lasted less than 90 minutes. But that special broadcast pushed the limits of live television in 1941 and opened up new possibilities for future broadcasts. As CBS wrote in a special report to the FCC, the unscheduled live news broadcast on December 7 “was unquestionably the most stimulating challenge and marked the greatest advance of any single problem faced up to that time.” Additional newscasts were scheduled in the early days of the war. In May 1942, WCBW (like almost all television stations) sharply cut back its live program schedule and the newscasts were cancelled, since the station temporarily suspended studio operations, resorting exclusively to the occasional broadcast of films. This was primarily due to the fact that much of the staff had either joined the service or were redeployed to war-related technical research, and to prolong the life of the early, unstable cameras which were now impossible to repair due to the wartime lack of parts.
In May 1944, as the war began to turn in favor of the Allies, WCBW reopened the studios and the newscasts returned, briefly anchored by Ned Calmer, and then by Everett Holles. After the war, expanded news programs appeared on the WCBW schedule - renamed WCBS-TV in 1946 - first anchored by Milo Boulton, and later by Douglas Edwards. On May 3, 1948, Douglas Edwards began anchoring CBS Television News, a regular 15-minute nightly newscast on the rudimentary CBS network, including WCBS-TV. It aired every weeknight at 7:30 p.m., and was the first regularly scheduled, network television news program featuring an anchor (the nightly Lowell Thomas NBC radio network newscast was simulcast on television locally on NBC's WNBT (channel 4, now WNBC) for a time in the early 1940s and the previously mentioned Richard Hubbell, Ned Calmer, Everett Holles and Milo Boulton on WCBW in the early and mid-1940s, but these were local television broadcasts seen only in New York City). The NBC television network's offering at the time NBC Television Newsreel (premiering in February 1948) was simply film with voice narration. In 1950, the name of the nightly news was changed to Douglas Edwards with the News, and the following year, it became the first news program to be broadcast on both coasts, thanks to a new coaxial cable connection, prompting Edwards to use the greeting "Good evening everyone, coast to coast." The broadcast was renamed the CBS Evening News when Walter Cronkite replaced Edwards in 1962. Edwards remained with CBS News with various daytime television newscasts and radio news broadcasts until his retirement on April 1, 1988.
In the 1950s through the mid-1960s, WCBS-TV's local newscasts were anchored by CBS News correspondent Robert Trout. In 1965, Trout left for a new assignment in Europe and was succeeded by Jim Jensen. Jensen had only come to WCBS-TV a year earlier (he previously was at WBZ-TV in Boston), but was already well known for his coverage of Robert F. Kennedy's 1964 campaign for the United States Senate. During the 1960s, WCBS-TV battled WNBC-TV (channel 4) for the top-rated news department in New York City. After WABC-TV (channel 7) introduced Eyewitness News in the late 1960s, WCBS-TV went back and forth in first place with Channel 7, in a rivalry that continued through the 1970s. For much of the early 1980s, New York's "Big Three" stations took turns in the top spot. During this time, three of the longest-tenured anchor teams in New York – Jensen and Rolland Smith, WABC-TV's Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, and WNBC-TV's Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons – went head-to-head with each other.
WCBS-TV had many well-known personalities during this era: anchors Dave Marash, Rolland Smith, Michele Marsh and Vic Miles; meteorologists Dr. Frank Field and John Coleman; reporters Meredith Vieira, Randall Pinkston, Tony Guida, John Stossel and Arnold Diaz and sportscaster Warner Wolf. Vieira, Pinkston and Guida later moved to the CBS network. Vieira later moved to NBC where she co-hosted the morning show Today until leaving and being replaced with Ann Curry.
In 1987, WABC-TV surged to first place. As the 1990s began, Channel 2 found itself increasingly losing its ratings share to WNBC. One of management's more controversial responses was to take Jensen off the anchor desk in late 1994 and demote him to host of a Sunday morning public-affairs show, Sunday Edition. He also hosted a few episodes of the regular "Sports Update" show on Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. At the time, Jensen had served as an anchor longer than anyone in New York television history (he has since been passed by WABC-TV's Beutel and WNBC's Scarborough). The move was roundly criticized by many in New York, especially since WCBS-TV had supported him after he went into drug rehabilitation in 1988. Another controversy involved an exchange between Jensen and co-anchor Bree Walker, whose fingers and toes are fused together as a result of the condition ectrodactyly. After Walker did a report about her experience with the condition, Jensen asked Walker, on the air, if her parents would have aborted her had they known she would have been born with the condition. Walker kept her composure on air but soon left the station.
The incident took place shortly before Jensen's entry to drug rehabilitation. Station management came under more fire in 1995 when Jensen was forced to retire shortly after the Westinghouse Electric Corporation announced it was buying CBS. By the end of 1995, Channel 2 had crashed into last place for the first time in its history while WNBC surged to a strong second place – a pecking order that would remain in place for eleven years. The station's news branding change from Channel 2 News to just 2 News during that time contributed to the station's last-place finish in the February 1996 sweeps period.
1996 "massacre" and format changes
On October 2, 1996, the station executed an unprecedented mass firing without any advance warning, citing the need to shake up its news operation. Seven people were fired: anchors John Johnson, Michele Marsh and Tony Guida; sports anchor Bernie Smilovitz; and reporters Reggie Harris, Roseanne Colletti and Magee Hickey. The firings came after the 6 p.m. newscast. Johnson and Marsh had anchored the 5 p.m. newscasts and signed off at 6 p.m. saying, "We'll see you at 11," but never got a chance to say goodbye on the air.
"The massacre," as it has come to be known, was part of a move enacted by then-news director Bill Carey to boost ratings, although it came at a time when CBS was under pressure to boost revenues, having just merged with Westinghouse. It was also part of a major reconstruction of the newscast, culminating in the May 1997 rebranding to News 2.
When the News 2 name was put in place, a format change was also instituted, going for a faster-paced newscast with more stories; this was reinforced by reminders that News 2 had "More news in less time, everytime" and a "Rundown" of stories to come. After a year, little to no progress in the ratings was made, so this format was done away with; a new "Virtual studio" format, alongside bright, orange and white graphics and a "club" remix of the CBS Enforcer theme, was tried out. This did not work either, so this approach was junked, in favor of a more "traditional" newscast. The "club" remix of the CBS Enforcer theme would continue to be used until early 2000.
From News 2 to CBS2 News (2000-present)
"CBS 2 News" nighttime open, as of September 22, 2013. In 2000, Joel Cheatwood, creator of the 7 News format at WSVN in Miami, was appointed as the station's news director. At his suggestion, the newscasts were rebranded from News 2 to the CBS 2 Information Network, using "content partners" such as U.S. News & World Report and VH1. He also gave the newscasts more of a tabloid feel. While considerably watered down compared to Bill Applegate's work at WBBM-TV in Chicago, John Lippmann's work at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, Fox flagship WNYW, and Cheatwood's work at WSVN - and even compared to WSVN's sister station, WHDH in Boston - it was much flashier than had previously been seen on New York's "Big Three" affiliates. He also retooled the 11 p.m. report as a "gritty, down-to-earth" style newscast, termed Nightcast. At this point, the station was sharing studio space with CBS Sports (having previously shared street-side studios with CBS' then-morning newscast, The Early Show, as a part of its short-lived attempt at a newscast at 4 p.m., which they had previously attempted in the early 1990s). It did not work, and Cheatwood was gone by 2002 in favor of New York veteran news director Dianne Doctor. The station became simply CBS 2, and gradually phased out the tabloid elements. In its place, Doctor introduced a "news for the people" approach similar to that of her previous employer, WNBC.
After Doctor's arrival, WCBS placed a revived emphasis on hard news, while attempting to revive some elements of its glory days. For instance, in 2003 Arnold Diaz rejoined the station to revive "Shame on You", an Emmy Award-winning series of investigative segments. He had previously worked at the station from 1973 to 1995, leaving to serve a similar investigative role at ABC News. In December 2005, Diaz once again departed, this time leaving for WNYW. Another segment was "Eat at Your Own Risk", which highlighted unsafe conditions at New York-area restaurants. Ironically, the cafeteria at the CBS Broadcast Center was cited for violations by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Violations included the presence of rats and roaches, as well as food temperature issues.
Despite this and other attempts at fixes, the ratings did not significantly improve under Doctor's watch. Doctor was criticized for airing "Shame on You" and "Eat at Your Own Risk" segments ahead of major stories. She also came under fire when channel 2 led its 11 p.m. newscast of May 24, 2005, with a story and exclusive video of actor Burt Reynolds slapping a CBS producer, while rivals WABC-TV and WNBC-TV led with an important vote in the U.S. House on stem cell research.
On May 27, 2004, Doctor fired popular sports anchor Warner Wolf, three months before his contract expired, without giving Wolf a chance to say goodbye on air. This incident was widely panned by several newspapers, including the New York Daily News, and the move alienated and angered many viewers. Wolf was replaced by the much younger Chris Wragge, who was brought in from NBC affiliate KPRC-TV in Houston. On June 1, 2005, Jim Rosenfield rejoined the station to anchor the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts with Roz Abrams, who joined channel 2 the previous year after an 18-year run at WABC-TV. The son of a former CBS executive, Rosenfield previously worked at the station from 1998 to 2000 before moving to WNBC (to anchor Live at Five) after a contract dispute with channel 2. Rosenfield replaced Ernie Anastos, who moved to WNYW in July 2005.
On August 22, 2005, WCBS-TV launched its new Doppler weather radar named "Live Doppler 2 Million". It has one million watts of power, and is live, compared to other dopplers in the market which are delayed by about 15 minutes. "Live Doppler 2 Million" was the punch line of a joke on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! and was ridiculed on the popular Opie and Anthony radio show. The station renamed the radar in 2006 to "Live Doppler". The station also uses the VIPIR radar processing software. Coincidentally, transportation reporter Arthur Chi'en was fired from the station three months earlier after mistakenly using expletives live on the air in response to someone from Opie and Anthony disrupting his live report as part of their "Assault on the Media" contest. On April 14, 2006, Dianne Doctor left WCBS-TV. The station decided to move its news department in a new direction under new general manager Peter Dunn, who axed "Shame on You" and "Eat at Your Own Risk". Doctor reportedly did not agree with the new plans, and opted to leave. The station has since overhauled its graphics and anchor lineup, winning praise from media observers.
Partnership with The Weather Channel; ratings improvement
In early September 2006, WCBS-TV's weather department entered into a partnership with The Weather Channel, with meteorologists from the cable channel often appearing on-air with existing WCBS-TV meteorologists. WCBS-TV also received information from The Weather Channel, in addition to using their radars and satellite imagery. The Weather Channel featured updates with WCBS for New York City's weather on its Evening Edition program with one of the WCBS meteorologists, and forecast intros on WCBS began with "now time for your exclusive forecast from CBS 2 and The Weather Channel." On July 7, 2008, this partnership officially ended when it was announced that The Weather Channel had been sold to NBCUniversal (owner of competitor WNBC).
On November 6, 2006, WCBS-TV made a personnel change on its noon and 5 p.m. newscasts. Former sports director and anchor Chris Wragge became co-anchor of both programs, along with newly hired Kristine Johnson, both replaced Roz Abrams and Mary Calvi on those newscasts; Abrams' contract was allowed to lapse, and Calvi was reassigned to weekends as the sole evening anchor. Calvi co-anchored on mornings with Rob Morrison. More changes came in early 2007, as John Elliot was introduced as the new morning and noon meteorologist, replacing Audrey Puente, whose abrupt breach-of-contract demotion led to her being allowed to become the new chief meteorologist at WWOR-TV less than two weeks later. WCBS-TV also hired Lonnie Quinn, previously a weatherman in Miami, as they phased out John Bolaris, who had rejoined WCBS in 2002. On June 25, 2007, Wragge and Johnson added the 11 p.m. newscast to their duties, trading places with Dana Tyler and Jim Rosenfield on the noon program; Tyler and Rosenfield continued to co-anchor the 6 p.m. newscast. Rosenfield left WCBS in May 2008 and was replaced with recently hired weekend anchor Don Dahler.
Improvement in ratings, new set
In the February 2007 ratings period, WCBS-TV finished second behind WABC-TV from sign-on to sign-off - its best showing in 16 years, although most of its newscasts still finished in third place at that time. By the November 2007 sweeps period, channel 2's local evening newscasts had overtaken WNBC for second place (mainly due to declining ratings at WNBC). It was channel 2's best news performance in 12 years, but it still trailed WABC-TV by a fairly wide margin. On April 11, 2007, WCBS-TV became the third New York City television station to begin broadcasting its newscasts in high-definition. In May 2008, WCBS led WNBC by an even wider margin. However, its longtime #1 noon newscast's ratings fell behind WABC, the only other station to offer a noon newscast in the New York area. WCBS has been unable to regain the lead at noon since, although they were still second in New York City among the market's evening broadcasts at the time.
WCBS elected to change the noon anchors again after approximately a year and put the noon broadcast in the hands of the morning news team; the then-current anchors were Maurice DuBois and Mary Calvi with John Elliott providing weather forecasts. DuBois has since switched to anchoring the weeknight 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts with Johnson (with Wragge moving to The Early Show; he later returned to anchor WCBS's 6 p.m. weekday broadcast with Dana Tyler) and is now partnered with Calvi weekday mornings and at noon.
Reporter Kathryn Brown reporting on the Summer 2012 North American heat wave from the Times Square subway station on July 18, 2012. In the February 2011 Nielsen sweeps period, WCBS-TV's 11 p.m. newscast unseated WABC-TV for first place in total households in that timeslot. WABC continued to lead in the key demographics at 11 p.m. WCBS-TV quickly lost its lead at 11 p.m. after WABC-TV regained its status as #1 at 11 p.m. in the May 2011 sweeps. WABC-TV has since kept its #1 status at 11 p.m. Recently, WCBS-TV has moved back to third place in ratings due to an increase in ratings at WNBC-TV.
On September 29, 2011 WCBS-TV moved into a temporary set after the final newscast in the set they had been using for 10 years. The final newscast used in the temporary set was on October 20, 2011 for "CBS 2 News This Morning". Then, on October 20, 2011, WCBS-TV debuted a new set on their noon newscast. The modernized set features a projection screen which changes backgrounds for each newscast (morning, noon and night) behind the anchors with blurred glass panels on both sides and the weather center includes additional blurring panels, plenty of monitors, an L-shaped desk and dimensional letter along the top of the set.
On September 22, 2013 on the late newscast following Emmy Awards, WCBS introduced the new look for its newscasts. This included a new logo with a gold "2" that had previously been seen in promos for months, new opens and an updated version of Enforcer. The former look was used one last time earlier that day during CBS 2 News Sunday Morning.