In City of Angels, KNBC Flies High
West Coast NBC flagship takes care in a diverse community
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/15/2005 8:00:00 PM
The sign of a good newscast can sometimes be what it chooses not to cover. Last Wednesday in Los Angeles, an intense, high-speed car chase ended when the police fatally shot the driver. This is the junk food of L.A. TV news, and the local news operations raced to the scene. But not all of those stations carried the 50-minute pursuit live. The holdout: KNBC. At NBC's West Coast flagship, the policy is to be cautious with graphic chases. In most cases, including the May 11 pursuit, that means not going live.
|Household/25-54 ratings in sweeps month and those following|
|SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research, English-language stations
|Stations||Feb. '05||MArch '05||april '05|
“It was apparent this was going to end badly,” says KNBC News Director Bob Long. “We were covering it, but we're not going to interrupt regular programming to inflict a car chase on people.”
KNBC still filmed the incident and aired reports on later newscasts. Its viewers were spared the live drama. The driver pulled out a pistol and was gunned down by police, sending the TV stations scrambling to pull back to wider shots.
The high ground can cost viewers. KABC, which was live on the scene, nabbed top ratings, and KNBC was second. But Long does not regret the decision. “Doing the right thing knocked us out of first place,” he says.
That is not to say KNBC never gives in to tabloid temptations. Station executives, however, believe that being more judicious will set them apart from the competition.
“In a world of 100 channels, there is so much fluff on other networks,” says KNBC reporter Doug Kriegel. “We need to put on real news where viewers can find out about their community.”
That sentiment extends from KNBC's newsroom to the executive suites. In a very competitive, expansive market—it comprises five main counties encompassing 34,149 square miles—KNBC sets the pace in terms of community involvement, first-rate news and overall excellence. For those reasons, B&C has dubbed KNBC one of its Local Legends, stations that stand out from the competition.
The station boasts a string of journalism prizes, including regional and national Emmys, Edward R. Murrow Awards and Golden Mike honors. Last year, it received Golden Mike prizes for best hard-news series, best light-news series and best business reporting from the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
These aren't the absolute best of times for KNBC, or for the network that owns it. For years, the dominant Los Angeles station, KNBC now is in dogfights across the day. In the mornings, a time period KNBC once led, Fox-owned KTTV and The WB outlet KTLA are tough competitors. KCBS poached KNBC's proven afternoon news lead-in Dr. Phil, and KABC dominates early news. Although KNBC has been the top-rated English-language station at 11 p.m. since 1994, KABC is nipping at its heels. NBC's struggles in prime time certainly do not help. But KNBC is always solidly in the race, if not ahead of the pack.
Doing even a little bit better—or worse—is reflected dramatically on the stations' bottom line. L.A. ranks as Nielsen's second-largest TV market but is tops in total revenue. In 2004, local broadcasters raked in $1.715 billion in gross revenue, according to BIA Financial. (New York, the biggest market in audience, took in $1.669 billion.)
KNBC was tops among stations, taking in $299 million, according to BIA estimates. Following were KTTV, with $273 million; KABC, $230 million; and KCBS, $187 million. Univision's Spanish-language KMEX, the market's most-watched outlet, took in $130 million.
“KNBC's strengths are consistency with its team and community involvement,” says L.A.-based media buyer Nancy McLachlan, VP/regional broadcast director for Initiative Media. “In any given newscast, they are going to rank first or second.”
That is a major accomplishment in this sprawling market of 17.2 million residents and 5.4 million TV homes. The DMA includes distinctive regions, from tony Orange County to suburban San Fernando Valley to the city of Los Angeles. On their own, each could rank as a top-20 market. The diversity is notable, with 43% of residents claiming Hispanic origin, 11% Asian descent and 7% African-American. Without cable, a TV set in L.A. can pick up seven English-language stations and seven Spanish-language outlets.
“The hardest thing is standing out in the clutter,” says Princell Hair, former KCBS news director and currently CNN's senior VP of development. “You want to be the community station, but for what community?”
KNBC plays up its deep roots. “Trust Experience,” its promotions implore viewers. “This is a legacy station with great brand recognition,” says Jay Ireland, president of the NBC station group. KNBC gets a window into the Hispanic communities thanks to sister stations NBC-owned Telemundo station KWHY and independent KVEA. The three stations share a newsroom and pool reporting and video.
Leading the way are evening co-anchors Paul Moyer and Colleen Williams. Their team, which also includes weatherman Fritz Coleman and sports anchor Fred Roggin, is a viewer favorite. Veteran reporters like Kriegel, Laurel Erickson and Furnell Chatman have been with the station for decades, covering earthquakes, fires, riots and, of course, celebrity trials. “We do news in a straightforward, comfortable way with people who have been here a while,” says Moyer. “Every time we vary from that, it hurts us a little.”
KNBC's alumni read like a who's who of the TV business. Former Today and CBS Morning News anchor Bryant Gumbel worked at the station (see box, page 22). Veterans have moved on, like former Lifetime Television CEO Carole Black, who served as general manager in the 1990s, and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak, once a KNBC weatherman. Longtime NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw cut his teeth on big national stories at KNBC.
Originally known as KNBH, the station signed on in 1949 as channel 4, which remains its position. At the time, it was already one of seven VHF stations in the L.A. market, which counted just 80,000 TV homes. It strived to be cutting-edge. In 1950, it transmitted the first commercial sports telecast, an NFL game between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. The next year, it chartered a private plane from Washington, D.C., to provide viewers with film of a speech given by Gen. Douglas McArthur five hours earlier. When the operation moved to its current Burbank headquarters in 1962, it switched its call letters to KNBC. Today, it produces 30 hours of local news and other programs a week.
The Hollywood Factor
Far away from network news brass in New York, KNBC and its competitors could take chances. “We were like the Galapagos Islands,” says Long of those days in the 1970s, when he was just starting out in TV. “It was exciting and creative.” Writing and photography were more artistic, in part influenced by the entertainment industry. L.A. stations take credit for being the first to use live shots, first to present hour-long local newscasts and, to be sure, first to use helicopters. Among KNBC's contributions, says Brokaw of his old station, “we were the first to go to the two-hour early-evening format and establish an Orange County bureau.”
But there was the Hollywood factor, too, which many thought then, and think now, makes L.A. news a whole lot less serious than it should be. In L.A., celebrity news and lifestyle reports—Britney Spears is pregnant! The latest in Botox treatments!—worm their way into the A-block of a newscast. High-drama events, especially car chases, commandeer the airwaves. In East Coast newsrooms, staffers like to snicker at their fluffy West Coast counterparts.
No story stereotyped L.A. news more than the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, which dominated the headlines for months. KNBC fed on the O.J.-mania. During Simpson's trial, the station aired a daily wrap-up show, hosted by Williams and Moyer, which was also simulcast on MSNBC. KNBC's Chapman boasts the first Simpson interview after his acquittal.
But on most stations, big stories like the Simpson case have been outnumbered by more-tabloid topics, such as the Winona Ryder shoplifting escapade. “It is easy to get confused with the nonsense celebrity coverage and put it all in one basket,” says local media columnist Ron Fineman, a former TV and radio reporter who covers the scene on his On the Record Web site. But KNBC is trying to draw the line. “You can make the case that [KNBC] is the best news operation in town and Bob Long makes it better,” says Fineman.
In the past five years, the tenor of KNBC's news has shifted. Arriving in November 2000, President/General Manager Paula Madison wasn't pleased with the product. “I was fascinated by what I wasn't seeing on our air,” says the former print reporter and news director for WNBC New York. “It was celebrity news, crime and a lot of stories on Las Vegas. We'd have a car chase and then one from Phoenix and Denver, too.”
One of her first directives banned lengthy coverage of car chases. It stunned the newsroom. Car chases are one of the signatures of L.A. news. But Madison found them disruptive, and, she notes, most were news-free stories about petty thieves. KNBC will still air some car chases, like the May 11 event, but not wall-to-wall. She and Long are pushing the news staff to produce more-substantive news.
For example, about the time Madison got there, California was suffering through an energy crisis, and it was a story she says her station and others virtually ignored. She mandated an energy-related story be included at the top of each newscast.
Madison replaced veteran News Director Nancy Bauer Gonzales, now VP of news for Viacom-owned KCBS and KCAL, with former KXAS Dallas News Director Kim Goodwin, who got the hook after 20 months and was replaced by Long. Under pressure from NBC to cut costs, Madison axed some staffers, including the popular Today in LA anchors; the show, which had been top-rated for years, fell behind. (Madison recently faced another difficult personnel situation. Reporter Kyung Lah, who is married, and news producer Jeff Soto were fired in March after it was widely reported that they were having an affair. Late-news producer Jim Bruner also was dismissed in the wake of the incident.
When Long arrived in July 2003, he continued rebuilding. “We had left our viewers,” he says simply. Long says the L.A. audience's tastes have changed, jarred by unsettling events, such as the Rodney King beating and riots and the 9/11 terror attacks. “Viewers couldn't handle another water-skiing squirrel,” he says. “People want to know are they safe, is the freeway jammed, do they need a coat?”
A former Marine who wears a bow tie and keeps a well-stocked bar hidden inside a cabinet in his office, Long is an old-school newsman. He was seasoned writing for wire services and radio and landed his first TV job as a senior writer for KCBS (then KNXT) and has also been managing editor for KNBC. Long was running the news for sister station WRC Washington, when he was called back to help KNBC. “Long is a serious news guy,” says Fineman. “He is the most popular news director in town.”
Maybe People don't Care about Celebs
Just 8% of L.A. viewers care about celebrity news, the same as people in Cleveland and Peoria, Ill., Long says, citing research he has read. Some celebrity stories are legitimate, he says. “If they are accused of murder or child molesting, that is news.” But stars' shoplifting escapades or divorces, he says, are not. Instead, Long prefers news about politics, education and the economy. “News is part what people need to know,” he says.
To deliver, KNBC added a political analyst and, in the wake of Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor, reopened its Sacramento bureau. Focus on the morning show, now hosted by Kelly Mack and Chris Schauble, is producing better ratings. Other changes have been more subtle. KNBC cut back on sound effects and snappy names given to regular segments. To generate ideas, Long takes his managers on retreats to brainstorm stories and work on writing technique.
“After 9/11, people had a greater sense of vulnerability, being hurried and anxious. It was the last step that enabled us to get rid of the lifestyle features, the warm and fuzzy,” says Long. “We've been successful by eliminating the crap. We won't waste people's time. If we find good stories and tell them well, we will succeed.”
At the same time, Madison has expanded KNBC's approach to community service, a pillar of any great local station. KNBC tries to mesh public affairs with news. “We can be a galvanizing force in the community,” she says. “We need to use our best resource—our airtime—to educate viewers.”
The market's first female African-American general manager, Madison has always been active in diversity and outreach. She started her TV career as public affairs director at WFAA Dallas and served as NBC's senior VP of diversity from 2000 to 2002. On top of the basics—public-service announcements, anchors dropping in on parades and ribbon cuttings—she scooped up high-profile events like the Los Angeles Marathon (she runs every year) and a health expo.
In addition, she tapped KNBC producer Rebecca Nieto, a 20-year local-news vet, to coordinate news and community affairs. The efforts take several forms. Nieto meets with community groups and aims to involve them in KNBC's news product. An individual could be an expert for a story, and, occasionally, an outreach program or event inspires a news report. In short, Nieto finds grassroots community organizations that are under the radar of other stations.
Last fall, the station produced a program on the impact of Hispanic voters on the presidential election; it also aired on NBC- and Telemundo-owned stations and on MSNBC. Most recently, a February special on autism aired on KNBC, its sister NBC stations and some other NBC affiliates.
Currently, KNBC's most pressing dilemma is how to replace Dr. Phil as its 4 p.m. news lead-in. Renewing it was deemed too expensive. KNBC made a grab at the Suze Orman Show, but the show has been tabled. It could install The Ellen DeGeneres Show or Martha Stewart's new, untested show. Madison has ruled out a 4 p.m. newscast but not a local talk show.
Whatever the solution, Madison says, remembering KNBC's audience comes first.
“As a local station, we need to educate and entertain,” she says. “We live here, we educate our kids here, we shop, drive and worship here. We need to see the diversity of our community in the news coverage and make people aware of the issues.”
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