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"Utah's No. 1 television station. How can I help you?" chirps a receptionist in downtown Salt Lake City.

She's not sitting behind a desk at KSL's offices at the Triad Center. She's over on Main Street in the offices of KUTV — because Ch. 2 is indeed Utah's No. 1 television station.

Despite the lingering perception that KSL holds that title, the truth is that Ch. 5 hasn't been No. 1 in much of anything other than the 10 p.m. news for quite some time.

"KSL can't automatically dominate the market anymore," said Dale Cressman, an associate professor in BYU's Department of Communications and longtime TV news producer. "Things have changed."

There's even some dispute about whether the longtime "No. 1 Eyewitness News" is still leading at 10 p.m. (See accompanying story.)

"We had a great [November ratings] book, but it's more than that," said Steve Carlston, KUTV's vice president and general manager. "We feel like a team on a winning streak."

The history • Two decades ago, KUTV wasn't really in the game. KSL was regularly pulling in 20-plus ratings at 10 p.m., attracting almost as many viewers as KUTV and KTVX combined. When syndicators came to town selling the next hot show, they went to KSL first.

But KSL's competitors were sold to large station groups, who worked deals for the best programming. Add to that the stunning decline of NBC's prime-time ratings and it became a perfect storm at Ch. 5 and smooth sailing at Ch. 2.

For seven of the past 10 years, KUTV has been No. 1 in the full-day (sign-on to sign-off) ratings. For the recently completed November sweeps, KUTV was out in front with an average 4.4 rating and 12 share.

A local rating point is 1 percent of the 944,060 homes Nielsen estimates are in the Salt Lake TV market. A share point is 1 percent of the homes where someone is actually watching TV at a particular time.

KSL followed in second place with a 2.8 rating and an 8 share. And the rest of the field: KSTU (2.5/7); KTVX (2.4/7); KJZZ (0.9/ 3); and KUWB (0.2/1).

KUTV's newscast dominated in the morning, was a close second to KSL at noon and won handily at 5 and 6 p.m.

KSL has had a 6 p.m. newscast for decades, so beating Ch. 5 in that time slot is "probably just as historic" as the 10 p.m. results, explained KUTV news director Jennifer Dahl.

Still a dogfight • KUTV staffers seem to be taking their success in stride.

"Ever since I came on, it didn't seem like anybody was No. 2. We were always working to be the best," said anchorwoman Mary Nickles.

But the attitude around KUTV has changed. Anchorwoman Shauna Lake joked that the first thing she does in the morning is check the ratings on her computer — and then she greets her husband and children.

Everyone from anchorman Mark Koelbel to weatherman Sterling Poulson to Dahl has made comments to Carlston about being more tired lately. But they also say they are having more fun and, for the first time, feel like a team.Carlston told them, "It's because you're invested n

ow for the first time."

Nobody at KUTV is boasting. They're in a dogfight at 10 p.m., and they face a still-formidable foe.

"KSL is a rock-solid television station," Dahl said. "They do great work."

It says something that Ch. 5's late newscast is doing as well as it is, given the lousy lead-in from the NBC network. Almost unbelievably, NBC's prime-time ratings ticked down a bit in Utah this November after the "Jay Leno Show" debacle of 2009.

"Even in the days of remotes, people just leave the channel on [the station] they've been watching," said Louise Degn, an associate professor in the University of Utah's Communication Department and a former TV news reporter and producer. "Although the stations put a lot of effort into promoting their personalities and news content, they're a captive of what their networks give them."

The numbers from a single night, Thursday, Nov. 18, are startling. NBC's "Apprentice" provided KSL with a 3.2 rating from 9:45-10 p.m. as a lead-in to the late news; CBS' "The Mentalist" provided KUTV with a 13.6.

At 10 that same night, KSL's newscast almost tripled its lead-in, pulling a 9.5 to draw within 1.1 points of KUTV.

"That we can even be competitive on a night like that says that people still look to KSL for news," said Con Psarras, Ch. 5's vice president and managing news director.

For years, Ch. 5 maintained its lead at 10 p.m. despite weak lead-ins, but its network has never been down this far for this long "and there's a cumulative effect," Degn said.

And KSL has to compete with CBS affiliate KUTV when that network has been No. 1 locally for eight of the past 10 years.

Actually, the sailing hasn't been entirely smooth at Ch. 2. As was the case at many media outlets, KUTV staffers were faced with cutbacks and layoffs when the recession hit. And in 2007, there was an unsettled ownership situation when CBS sold the station to the investment group Cerberus Capital Management, L.P.

"That was a rough time for us," said anchorman Ron Bird. "But we held our heads high and kept working hard. And then Steve came in here and has given us a whole new fresh feeling."

"Morale was at an all-time low," Carlston said. "I brought a different attitude and positive message."

A driven leader • Part cheerleader, part ringmaster, part taskmaster, Carlston is in his second stint running a Salt Lake TV station. He spent five years at KSTU-Ch. 13 (1992-97) and made that station a legitimate contender in the local TV market.

When he arrived at KUTV 13 months ago, he had a definite goal.

"We're not No. 2. We're going to be No. 1," Carlston said. "Everybody in this building knows it."

They could hardly avoid the message or the messenger. In recent weeks, there were nights Carlston didn't leave until after 11 and was back before some morning staffers arrived at 4.

And they jumped on his bandwagon.

"His motto is you've got to enjoy where you come to work. We embrace that," said Bird.

It hasn't hurt morale that KUTV is hiring again. The station, which has a staff of 148, has added a dozen staffers in the past three months and is looking to fill a couple more positions.

But the changes have been tweaks — more emphasis on social media, a slight evolution of the on-air look, and a new attitude.

There has been no magic bullet, he said.

"If you're starting from a place of no strength, you have to make changes," Carlston said. "We were starting from a place of strength.

"We've been able to tap into the resources we had and add a couple of new people. And, all of a sudden, we've been able to harness that strength."

The Salt Lake Tribune maintains a news-gathering partnership with KUTV Ch. 2.