March 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 1999

Miami Vice No More

By Danielle Parker and Debra Leavitt

Miami is supposed to be the worst TV town in the country. WSVN is so notorious that its tapes are used in journalism schools as an example of the grotesque in local news.

Things change.

Miami's four major television stations have developed a culture of high enterprise, good sourcing, and a wide variety of stories. To be honest, local TV critics don't think much of the stations, and looking at the tapes, it's true that the whole does not always equal the sum of its parts. Still, Miami is different than it was, and much better than reputed. No 6 p.m. newscast earned lower than a "B," and the city was one of the highest-scoring in the study.

What happened? WSVN had surged in ratings in the late '80s by taking the only thing it had — Fox affiliate feeds — and turning news into a tabloid highlight reel. Meanwhile, the other stations were in chaos, with several switching networks and a longtime rival anchor retiring.

By the mid '90's, however, WSVN creator Joel Cheatwood moved on, and his successors overplayed the formula. Ratings plummeted. WPLG became dominant once again, while WTVJ, riding the NBC wave, began to rise. What has emerged now is a high-energy hybrid news culture — long on initiative with remnants of the tabloid past intact.

WPLG, now No. 1 under Cheatwood protégé Bill Pohovey, is trying to merge the look of WSVN and the empathetic feel of prime time news magazines. There are lots of human interest pieces, along with pseudo-investigative reports and some crime. The 6 p.m. broadcast is interesting and well produced.

WSVN is no longer "all crime all the time." The station airs the least crime at 6 p.m. Fusion now seems the approach — relentless coverage of breaking news, in-depth reporting, and consumer stories like "Help Me Howard," a segment in which a local lawyer gives advice to viewers. It's all presented in WSVN's traditional rapid-fire, high-glitz style. It's working. WSVN has climbed back to hailing distance of WPLG. And with "A" grades in two of three credibility categories, it's not surprising that the station has turned around its reputation as speedy but unreliable.

WTVJ was bolstered in the ratings when it switched affiliation to NBC. The station, run by a former news director, Don Brown, has hired a skilled manager to run news (the only one in town not from SVN) and is trying to counter-program with substance. The story selection is broad, thoughtful and highly local, though the pacing is still Miami. Not all the reporters, however, have the skills to pull it off.

WFOR, the long-time last place station in early news, is WSVN lite. It covers a broader range of topics and is a bit slower paced, but high on crime, entertainment and unusual events. Actually, its stories are less balanced and less local than WSVN's. The result: viewers apparently pass up lite when the high-cal original is in reach.

Besides the major stations, WAMI has provoked conversation by aiming at Gen Xers. It's definitely different: crime is not topic No. 1. Human interest is followed by politics, then culture. It is off the charts in focusing on issues and entertainment. But the experiment isn't producing quality or ratings. WAMI earned a "D," with too many out-of-town feeds, poor sourcing and low community relevance. It's a pale imitation of "The Daily Show."

Danielle Parker is a freelance writer in New York. Debra Leavitt is an associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a graduate of Boston University.