October 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 2000

Bucking the Trend: Lessons for Thriving in a Declining Market

By Marty Haag

Not long ago I came across an internal station memorandum from a local TV news operation that said: "We are an oasis in a sea of change." Perhaps that's the problem. We don't know what we are in local TV news anymore — even metaphorically. No question plagues television news executives more than the dimension of change when ratings are falling, station loyalties are eroding and technologies threaten the broad-based audience we once had. What will the newscast be like five years from today? As one who is contemplating retirement after more than thirty-five years in local television news, I see parallels to Reuven Frank's lament that network news pre-eminence, unlike the Roman Empire, didn't fall; it petered out. Is this happening to local television news?

In the roiling conditions of the 1980's, the strengths of network news fell away: appointment viewing went the way of the TV dinner. A cable news operation seemed able to respond to breaking news minutes before the networks could crank up. Local stations had the advantage of being local but also could bring in satellite feeds from anywhere.

Now, local television journalism is bombarded regularly with charges of being shallow, shoddy and crime-ridden. Many see local TV as irrelevant, particularly 18-to-24-year-olds and those comfortable with the Internet.

This year's results from the local television news study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism offer "benchmarks" for success in analyzing the products of four stations: KTVU in Oakland, KTVK in Phoenix, KGUN in Tucson and WXIA in Atlanta. All four stations earned "A" grades in the study and have been enjoying ratings success for the past three years. Once again, the PEJ study holds out hope that leaders with higher ideals than the cast of "Survivor" will preserve the core of excellent journalism while accommodating change.

In the light of the setting afternoon sun, the view from the KTVU newsroom in Oakland — the bay, the sailboats, the bridge (not that one, the other one) and the towering skyline of San Francisco — is spectacular. It's not bad on the inside either. KTVU, Channel 2, earned the highest marks in this year's PEJ local news study and scored more than 100 points above the next-best station.

The source of the station's excellence is no mystery. The architect of Channel 2's product, Fred Zehnder, was in charge for 20 years as news director before retiring last year. The general manager, Kevin O'Brien, has been leading his troops for more than 14 years. The lead news anchor, Dennis Richmond, has had the title since 1976. "Most of the people here have lived and worked in the Bay Area for years," says the current news director, Andrew Finlayson, "and they know where Point Richmond is, and they know the institutions of the area. They have experience that you can't buy." When Finlayson gets audition tapes, they are put in two stacks — those who have lived and worked in Northern California and those who haven't.

The breakdown of what KTVU, a Fox affiliate, puts on the air tells us much. The station aired few crime stories. A relatively high percentage (13.3%) of the hour-long broadcast's stories were about economics and business. KTVU has two business reporters, one for morning, one for evening, and one of them is the nationally syndicated expert Brian Banmiller. Another reporter, Randy Shandobil, does politics exclusively. Finlayson points out that a question about political coverage probably wouldn't get enthusiastic response from a focus group, but in the hands of a talented writer, the results might differ. KTVU stories are long, averaging between two and three minutes. More than half the stories used three or more sources. With metronome precision, the "number one prime time news in the country," as the station describes itself, ticks off the day's top stories in more than ample detail: first, hackers hitting eBay; next, new details on an airplane crash, an exclusive local story; then, a Bush primary win. One senses that a viewer seeing the next morning's paper would think to himself, "knew that, knew that, knew that," and so on.

"Fred preached one thing over and over," Finlayson says of Zehnder, "and that was to give time to all of the communities of the Bay Area. We have more voices; we speak to all communities. We don't just aim for the BMW demographic."

There is one other thing. KTVU doesn't have a helicopter or satellite news-gathering truck.

"We couldn't cover a car chase even if we wanted to," Finlayson crows.

Thus Lesson Number One: It's about people.

Moving east from the Bay Area, the next top-scoring station in the study this year was KTVK, Channel 3, the market leader for news in Phoenix. I have a confession to make here: This is a Belo station. Still, there are lessons to be learned from KTVK's success: Know your market, stake out a clearly defined direction, and don't fear being "out there." And, of course, an outstanding, stable management team helps. When Bill Miller left another Phoenix station to run KTVK nearly 15 years ago, he assembled a talented behind-the-scenes team — including Phil Alvidrez and Dennis O'Neil, who run the news division, and Sue Schwartz, who succeeded Miller this year as general manager. The group has proved it has a talent for entrepreneurship. In January 1995, ABC yanked the station's affiliation, making Channel 3 a pure independent. Fearing that loss of network status would relegate the station to secondary status in the viewer's mind, Miller and his crew labeled KTVK "the place with more stuff." The logo was a jiggling TV set with rabbit ears.

The station has been criticized for little coverage of issues and "lots of frothy news" by the Arizona Republic's TV critic, Steve Wilson. PEJ's study found an unusually low percentage of stories (3.3%) that focused on ideas, issues or policies. And only 3.3% of the content resulted from station-initiated investigations. Breaking news rules. More than a third (37.4%) of the stories in the newscasts surveyed were responses to spontaneous events. About a third of the stories were about crime. Understandably, there are more national stories and longer stories in a typical KTVK newscast; the station does eight hours of news a day Monday through Friday.

In a 6 p.m. broadcast screened for this article, uniqueness abounds. The photography is inventive. Lower-third supers are rainbow colors and in script. The consumer segment is labeled "Consumer Stuff." The helicopter pilot/reporter is a bona fide star.

The late news at 10 p.m. was recently expanded to one hour and labeled "The NewShow." Here again, except for another in Alvidrez's collection of attractive anchor people, convention is thrown to the wind. The single anchor stands in a tiny studio next to a TV monitor and flits through an hour by herself, veering from a hard-news story to a live-shot feature and back. It is as if the broadcast were formatted with the aid of a dart board. But it works. Not only is it fun, it is informative. This baby is niched.

Lesson Number Two: At a time when we are told all newscasts appear alike, difference can matter. Don't be a commodity. Could you replicate KTVK in another market? Maybe not.

According to one researcher, only one station in the country has improved its rank order in news and held that position for three ratings periods without a significant change in lead-in. That hasn't happened in Tucson yet either, but a significant change is in the wind. KGUN's 6 p.m. newscast took over first place in July. Three years ago, KGUN, Channel 9, did not have a 6 p.m. broadcast and the 5 p.m. trailed by 12 rating points.

The reason for the new 6 p.m.'s success may be found on the tapes from the early March recording period. The station sends a reporter to nearby Mt. Lemmon to cover the snowfall but also to report the impact on water rationing; a full-screen graphic or an over-the-shoulder box conveys important information. Sen. John McCain withdraws from the presidential race. School closings are revealed, as is information on a Salvation Army coat drive. This broadcast fulfills the expectations of 6 p.m. news as a local news broadcast of record. The results from Super Tuesday are reported with remarks from a local campaign coordinator. In succeeding days, the news department turns to a story on the first-ever online voting in Arizona, and the effect of the snowfall on the poor section of Nogales, just across the border in Mexico.

KGUN, an ABC affiliate, was far above average in stories on ideas, issues and policy. In fact, at 22.2%, it was twice the average. The essential element in KGUN's turnaround, according to the voluble news director, Forrest Carr, is a concerted effort to connect with the viewers. The station has a "Viewers' Bill of Rights" which is "a public statement of principles," Carr says, "and in the Viewers' Representative, or ombudsman, we have their representative in the newsroom who covers reaction to our news coverage decisions once a week." So passionate is Carr's belief in reflecting community values that he is often criticized for being "holier than thou."

Carr says, "I admit to being a crusader, and journalists aren't supposed to be crusaders." Carr has adopted rules for covering crime like those promulgated several years ago at KVUE-TV in Austin by the late Carole Kneeland. Like KVUE, the station declares that it "will not stalk innocent victims of tragedy or crime."

Lesson Number Three: Have a vision and pursue it passionately.

The fourth benchmark selection is the Gannett-owned station in the highly-competitive Atlanta market, WXIA-TV. Two strong stations, WSB-TV and WAGA-TV, were not included in this year's study because the Project does not measure one-hour broadcasts against half-hours, like WXIA, in the same time slot. At 6 p.m., nearly a third of the stories on WXIA were about crime, and all of them were about local crime. In fact, only one other station, KCAL in Los Angeles, covers more crime, but WXIA, Channel 11, seemed to stand out by providing a balance of sources and providing stories on a diverse range of topics anyway. The newscast is heavy on live shots, seemingly with a small cadre of first-rate, experienced reporters.

Under news director Dave Roberts, the station attacks head-on subjects that are often denigrated: WXIA does many stories featuring state legislators, and it covers local institutions at length (twice the national average). And there is Bill Liss, the business editor. Liss is a former top airline executive who looks the part of a tough newspaper columnist.

In market after market these days news departments are running scared. Among evening newscasts, the typical story length is 21 to 30 seconds — almost one in four fall within this range. TV land lives in fear of itchy fingers on the remote. Your news is not appealing to younger demographics? Well, make it "look like MTV." Is your news not relevant? Maybe the viewer won't notice if wallpaper video flashes by.

But the taciturn Roberts has hired and maintained a veteran staff. The most experienced reporters (six have between 10 and 20 years' experience) invariably turn up in the 6 p.m. broadcast. As with the other three outstanding stations, story length was in the 2-to-3-minute range at WXIA. For some reason, I recall reading a story years ago arguing that the 20-second voice-over piece is akin to racing through a residential neighborhood at 35 to 40 miles per hour. No time for context, only pictures. One can see only the front of a house; there isn't time to peek inside to see more than a façade. The two-minute package, on the other hand, is like stopping and going inside the house to meet the family.

Lesson Number Four: Let it breathe.

Robert (Shad) Northshield, who worked at NBC and CBS for years, died recently. Shad came up with the idea of the closing shots on the CBS Sunday broadcast, which were just scenes of nature and natural sound. No voice track, no music. Yet people wrote to the broadcast saying how beautiful was the choice of Vivaldi. This year's four benchmark stations also offer similar suggestions to stem the hemorrhage in viewers. In a sea of change, have the vision to set on a clear course and have the courage to stick to it.

As a newly hired anchor once said, "I know I can win the ratings; it's not rocket surgery."

Marty Haag is Executive Vice President of Content and Innovation for Audience Research & Development, and former Executive Vice President for Broadcast News for A. H. Belo.