October 1, 2000

Local TV News Project 2000

Let's Go to the Video Tape

By Dan Rosenheim

Some of our design team members screened shows from five stations that earned top scores for their individual stories and offered their subjective reactions.

At first blush, the most striking characteristic of this year's top-scoring newscasts may be how little they have in common.

Some eschew crime; others thrive on it. Some favor live, breaking stories; others are more cerebral, relying on lengthy packages. Some are unadorned and straightforward; others are fast-action tabloids, replete with video effects and audio swooshes.

At WXIA in Atlanta, the lead story may be the baseball pitcher John Rocker's return to face hostile crowds in New York City. In the 6 o'clock news at Tucson's KGUN, it's a big snowstorm. At action-packed WNYW in New York, it's a gunman ambushing firefighters. These stories reflect profoundly different news philosophies, but each one is consistent with the overall tone and approach of the newscast it leads. In each case, strong storytelling, technical excellence and consistency of tone combine to tell the viewer: "This is a station that knows what it's doing and does it well."

At one end of the spectrum, WNYW's anchors and reporters share a tough, wry, no-BS style that feels very New York. The station is heavy on crime and heavy on live, but the crime stories are intrinsically interesting and high-profile, not the meaningless accidents and fires that pass for news on too many stations.

"I never felt lost or left behind," said one design team member, Alice Main. "The content kept up with the story count, and the shows looked good." John Cardenas, another team member, labeled the newscast "big, bold, clear and concise."

On the other coast, KTVU in San Francisco also came up a winner in this year's scoring. Because my station competes directly with KTVU, I'll refrain from characterizing their newscast, but instead offer two comments from design team members.

"I like the way live shots are produced on these newscasts," says Main. "It has the effect of seamlessness and keeps me interested." Jim Snyder's comment: "I was shocked to see how stodgy and predictable the KTVU show I saw was."

At the unadorned end of the spectrum stand KGUN and Chicago's WBBM, two serious newscasts that explore issues in depth. Carol Marin, WBBM's solo anchor, whom design team member Jim Snyder calls "one of the brightest anchorwomen in the country," helped to shape the 10 o'clock news's retro format. WBBM sets out to provide context for the day's events, with as many as three long debriefs a newscast between Marin and a reporter or a guest. It's a noble experiment, incorporating excellent coverage from WBBM's veteran reporters. But there is a thin line between virtue and sanctimony, and too often WBBM seems to boast, "Look, Ma, I'm being serious and important!"

Meanwhile, KGUN made a commitment to an important story without bogging the newscast down with long, taped "packages." Coverage of a February snowstorm moved deftly from live reports to a weathercast, anchor reads and a reporter on a virtual set. KGUN's anchors are engaging and authoritative, with flashes of humor, but you sense they feel they are less important than the stories. Weather tools like satellite imagery are used to tell the story, not to hype the brand.

It was encouraging to see how many of the top-scoring shows made education an important part of their coverage. Good consumer reporting (not cheesy formula alerts) was also evident. Another welcome characteristic is a willingness to encourage viewer comments and criticism, and to fess up when newscasts did wrong.

Dan Rosenheim is News Director at KPIX in San Francisco.akpertill