By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

John Severino knows a thing or two about running network TV stations. He did it successfully at ABC for 23 years, dominating the Los Angeles TV market in the '70s and '80s.

But now Severino is faced with an especially formidable challenge pulling KCBS-TV Channel 2 out of its hole near the bottom of the L.A. ratings heap.

Earlier this month, Severino agreed to join CBS Inc. as president of its TV stations division, overseeing all 16 of the network's owned-and-operated stations.

But his key job will be to turn around KCBS, which he also will run as general manager from the station's offices on Sunset Boulevard. He'll report directly to Les Moonves, president of CBS Television, instead of network executives in New York.

"Some of our stations like KDKA (in Pittsburgh), WBZ (in Boston) and WJZ (in Baltimore) are in good condition," Severino said. "Some are weaker, and there are some, like this one in L.A., that are in the pits. As they say in Cape Canaveral, there is nowhere to go but up."

KCBS has a long way to go before it gets into the same universe as the competition. In the recent May sweeps, it averaged a 2.5 rating for its 6 p.m. newscast, compared with KNBC-TV Channel 4's 6.1 rating and KABC-TV Channel 7's 5.6 rating.

KCBS's financial performance has been similarly lackluster. While neither CBS nor its competitors break out financials for their individual stations, Severino estimated that the local affiliate is running sixth in the market, on a revenue basis, behind KNBC, KABC and KTTV.

While KCBS has won numerous journalism awards including 13 local Emmys and the Edward R. Murrow Award for best news series in the nation not everyone is impressed.

"I watched (KCBS news) Wednesday night," Pam McNeely, a media buyer for Los Angeles-based Dailey & Associates, said last week. "I usually watch Channel 4, and the quality of this (KCBS) broadcast was so inferior to the others whether it was the lighting, the production values or the writing. The stories seemed to be staccato. The on-air talent wasn't impressive. This is why I watch KNBC."

What steps will Severino take to turn KCBS around? He's not saying quite yet ("I've only been here two minutes," he said.) But he's not favoring an instant slash-and-burn approach.

"There seem to be a lot of capable people here, but there seems to be a lack of leadership," he said. "I have to have a feel (for the station) before we jump in and dump everybody."

Developing a capable staff will be essential for Severino to succeed, said John Rohrbeck, a former general manager at KNBC who just recently retired as executive vice president for NBC.

"He has to build a team," Rohrbeck said. "They are at the bottom of the heap. He has to improve morale and get them to believe they can accomplish a great deal, and I don't mean just people on the air, but everyone, from promotion to sales."

While all those elements are no doubt important, on-air talent arguably is the most crucial ingredient. And Severino's past could provide some clues on what he might do at KCBS.

A key to his success at Channel 7, and earlier at WLS, the ABC station he ran in Chicago, was to hire a veteran anchorman and surround him with a young staff.

At KABC, Severino hired Jerry Dunphy.

At KCBS, that veteran could be none other than Tom Snyder, a former KNBC anchor who recently left his late-night CBS talk show.

Snyder was unavailable for comment last week, but his attorney Ed Hookstratten said, "Tom's taking six months off. He possibly might do something at Channel 2. Les Moonves is a big fan of his."

But Severino is unlikely to limit his sights to Snyder or anyone else.

Just prior to being hired by Severino many years ago, Dunphy was an anchor at KNXT (now KCBS). Encountering Severino, the KNXT general manager asked if it were true that KABC wanted to hire Dunphy.

No, Severino told the GM, adding that Dunphy was over the hill. Dunphy was soon fired, at which point Severino hired him as KABC's anchor. When the befuddled KNXT manager asked Severino about his actions, Severino responded, "I lied."

Dunphy went on to make KABC No. 1.

Prior to joining CBS this month, Severino had been working as a consultant to several TV stations around the country. His 23 years at ABC included a stint from 1981 to 1986 as president of ABC TV, when he oversaw both the network's operations and its stations group.

After leaving ABC, Severino became president of Prime Sports, a now-defunct Los Angeles-based sports cable channel. Most recently, he was president of Central European Media Enterprises, which launched TV stations in Eastern and Central Europe.

Severino ended up at CBS after Roger King, co-chairman of CBS-owned King World Productions, asked him just last month if he would be interested in working for the network.

"I said yes," Severino said, adding that he missed the action of being a broadcasting executive. The deal was concluded in a matter of weeks.

"If someone came to me about NBC or ABC, I probably would have said no," Severino said. "I was intrigued about CBS. You talk about a challenge this is a great challenge."

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