Twin Cities TraditionHubbard's historic KSTP faces new challenges 10/14/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Stanley S. Hubbard remembers the day in 1947 when his father finally found a bank to lend him the money to launch KSTP Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Twin Cities’ first TV station. With a million-dollar check in hand, the elder Hubbard told his son, “Stanley, they would rather bet on people than on horses.”
That wasn’t the case at home. He had to travel to Pittsburgh to find financing. But the bank made a wise investment: Hubbard’s father, radio pioneer Stanley E. Hubbard, became an innovator in television and broadcast news. KSTP aired the country’s first regularly scheduled 10 p.m. newscast, developing film at the station instead of a lab to get footage on-air faster.
“People said my dad was crazy,” Hubbard recalls. “They couldn’t 'see’ news.” Now CEO/chairman of Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., he too is an innovator, founding U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB), a DBS company, and Conus Communications, a satellite newsgathering cooperative.
Today, a third generation operates Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., the privately held media company that created a rich news legacy at KSTP.
The station’s No. 1 days are nearly 20 years in the past, though, and the Hubbards are in rebuild mode. They’re rejuvenating the 5 Eyewitness News team with a breaking-news format, a blast-from-the-past anchor, and a commitment to community service that harks back to the days when people mattered more than the local-news horserace.
With 4.3 million people, Minneapolis-St. Paul is the country’s No. 15 market, according to Nielsen Media Research. The market, comprising 59 counties, covers most of Minnesota and part of western Wisconsin. Last year, stations took in just over $300 million in ad revenue, 19th overall in the U.S., according to BIA Financial Network. Hubbard Broadcasting operates ABC affiliate KSTP and independent UHF station KSTC as one of two duopolies in the Twin Cities. News Corp. holds the other: Fox O&O KMSP and UPN affiliate WFTC.
Viewers in this top-tier market are tough to crack. A Nielsen Media Research study found that audience levels are lower than in other top-25 markets, noting characteristics that don’t bode well for heavy TV usage: For example, the population is predominantly white (African-Americans and Hispanics tend to watch more than the national average). Also, Minnesotans lead active lifestyles, thanks to a climate that permits a host of outdoor activities. Cable penetration is just 56%, below the 65% national average; satellite, at 20%, is a bit higher than the national average.
“It’s a very highly educated, affluent population,” says Star Tribune media reporter Deborah Caulfield Rybak. “Many of the tricks that work in other markets don’t work here.”
KARE dominates 10 p.m. newscasts. It logged a 15 household rating/26 share in the May sweeps (down 12.4% from the year-ago period), followed by WCCO with 12.1/21 (down 14.3%), KSTP with 6.3/11 (a slight uptick) and UPN affiliate WFTC—the new kid on the block—with 1.7/3. KMSP runs late news at 9 p.m., grabbing 7.3/11 (down 3.3%). KARE is a consistent winner at 5 and 6 p.m., with WCCO second and KSTP third. All but WFTC produce early-morning newscasts. Only WCCO and KSTP run midday news.
“News is a huge part of providing service to our communities,” says KSTP General Manager Rob Hubbard, who is also president/CEO of Hubbard Television Group. “Not news I might think is important or news that academia or politicians think is important, but news that people find important to their lives.”
The 5 Eyewitness News team’s breaking-news format features a high story count and a priority on freshness. For the past year, station promotions have touted the slogan “More News,” first in humorous spots featuring actor Ed Asner (cranky News Director Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the 1970s newsroom comedy set in Minneapolis) and then in stern promos plugging Sky Max 5 weather technology and “hard-hitting stories that impact your life.”
KSTP is considering a 4 p.m. newscast. For a station lacking syndication heavyweights, the move may be intended to help prime the local-news pump. WCCO has The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr.
Phil as early-evening lead-ins and Wheel of Fortune as lead-out; the CBS affiliate lured The Ellen DeGeneres Showaway from KSTP, airing it at 9 a.m. In turn, KSTP got Inside Edition from WCCO to run in early fringe, but it will lose Judge Judy at year-end.
TWO DECADES OF LEADERSHIP
For the first 20 years, KSTP’s news leadership—and the Hubbards’ technological savvy—went unchallenged. Then an NBC affiliate, KSTP and franchise anchor Ron Magers bested rival WCCO throughout the ’70s. When Magers left KSTP in 1981 for Chicago’s WMAQ, Cyndy Brucato helped carry the ratings torch until she left in ’86 to work in politics and start a powerful public-relations firm with her husband.
After switching network affiliation to ABC in ’79, KSTP missed the windfall of NBC’s ’80s prime time magic. Gannett’s KARE caught it, and also concocted a powerful news strategy including a 35-minute 10 p.m. newscast. (It was brilliantly simple: Viewers tuning into Cheers reruns at 10:30 p.m. always got five minutes of KARE news.) KSTP’s news woes were compounded by anchor changes, erratic promotion and a loss of the spotlight. Hubbard Broadcasting focused on USSB, which it sold to DirecTV owner Hughes Electronics Corp. in 1999 for a cool $1.25 billion.
KSTP General Manager Rob Hubbard, who served as USSB’s executive VP, says of the time, “It wasn’t that we abandoned our principles or our objectives. It was that some of the pieces that tie everything together—mission, branding, focus and a big chunk of the brain trust—went away.”
THE ANCHOR ISSUE
In the past two years, the 5 Eyewitness News team has undergone dramatic changes. News Director Chris Berg was called up in March 2003 from NBC affiliate KOB Albuquerque, N.M., to import a breaking-news format. (The company owns a handful of TV stations in New York and New Mexico; officials emphasize that they are locally operated.) Four months later, then-General Manager Ed Piette defected to WCCO. Rob Hubbard, grandson of KSTP’s founder, succeeded him. Since then, newscasts have been dominated by on-the-scene reporting, investigative stories and weather coverage.
The station’s latest personnel shuffle is under way in early-morning news. Meteorologist Jim Guy left in June, and longtime anchor Angela Davis departs at the end of the month.
The biggest change occurred in summer 2004, after former anchor Brucato sat in as a guest celebrity sports anchor for a day. Having struggled with the “anchor issue” for nearly 15 years, Hubbard Broadcasting saw a chance to capitalize on a familiar face and hired her to anchor the 6 p.m. newscast; it soon installed her at 5 and 10 p.m.
In a business that values youth above almost everything, the Hubbards took a breathtaking gamble in installing a 53-year-old anchor. As a spokesperson for businesses and politicians (including former Gov. Arne Carlson), Brucato was a local-media regular but had not anchored a newscast in 18 years.
“It was the best decision we ever made,” says Berg. “People want to know the people who are bringing in the news. Cyndy is a known commodity.”
As a PR consultant, Brucato has worked with the local Republican party and has strong ties to the business community. Her hire raised eyebrows in Twin Cities media, but Brucato and the station met allegations of bias head-on. After publishing a critical article shortly after her return, alternative newsweekly City Pages later gave Brucato its grudging respect, calling her “a throwback to that period when anchors thought about what they were reading, eschewed cutesy chitchat and acted like real people.”
Ken Stone, a former executive producer of the local PBS station’s evening newscast who teaches TV reporting and newscast producing at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, describes Brucato’s hire as “awesome.”
“TV is driven by fear. People do what everybody else does because it’s safe to do,” he says. “But the Hubbards sat there and said, 'I’d think she’d do a good job.’ It is distinctive.”
Though no fan of the breaking-news format, Stone says KSTP is a different kind of station because of its local ownership: “We need more Hubbards in the business. [Stanley S. Hubbard] is the guy right down the hall,
and that’s a huge benefit.”
SLOW BUT POSITIVE CHANGE
The jury is still out on whether Brucato’s return and the “more news” format have connected with viewers. “It’s nothing new to see them do another format, but has it improved the station?” asks Star Tribune’s Rybak. “They’re definitely covering breaking news, but they’re now No. 4 in [late-news] ratings.” (That’s counting KMSP’s 9 p.m. news with the 10 p.m. ratings.)
Still, KSTP is starting to see slow but positive change, particularly in year-to-year numbers. It had increases in household rating/share for evening and late-night newscasts in the May 2005 book, while rivals mostly showed decreases. At 6 p.m., it posted a 4.7/10—still third behind KARE and WCCO but an improvement of 20.3% in ratings and 18.3% in share.
More reassuring has been its old-school, shoe-leather reporting. In March 2003, KSTP sent reporter Dean Staley and photographer Joe Caffrey as an embedded news crew during the U.S. invasion of Iraq (the only non-network station to do so, the company says). The station attracted national attention—and heavy scrutiny—a year later when video shot by Caffrey raised questions about the security of high explosives in an arms cache that subsequently went missing. Whether the Bush administration and the Pentagon had done enough to secure the explosives, which could be used as ingredients in nuclear weapons, became a major issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Says Gary Hill, news manager for special projects and a 30-year station veteran, “Even though it was an international story, we were breaking new aspects of it.”
One twist: The Hubbard family is a major local donor to the Republican Party, and the story was considered damaging to the Bush administration. Even so, the Hubbards released the footage—“because it was news,” says the University of Minnesota’s Stone.
KSTP also cultivates local programming. Offerings include Friday night’s High School Sports Wrap, Charles Kuralt-like On the Road With Jason Davis, and Sunday-morning public-affairs show At Issue.
Like the market’s other news directors, Berg had to choose when the culmination of the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial coincided with the area’s first severe weather of the summer. KSTP juggled shots of ominously colorful weather radar with images of exuberant fans outside the Santa Clara, Calif., courthouse.
But the 5 p.m. newscast was a chance to prove KSTP’s commitment to local stories. The station led its 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts with storm coverage, mentioning the Jackson verdict only as an aside. When the storm peaked at about 7 p.m., KSTP went wall-to-wall for an hour with reports from four news crews and a helicopter team.
Berg quickly claimed victory over his rivals: “Clearly, we had dedicated the time and resources to the weather event that others had not.”
WEATHER COMES FIRST
Even season premieres take a back seat to breaking weather news in the Twin Cities. KSTP shifted the first half of the Sept. 21 Lost premiere over to UHF station KSTC to cover a major storm that left 150,000 people without power.
For KSTP, the storms are far from over. The climb past the formidable competition in the Twin Cities market will be a long one. Berg says Hubbard Broadcasting has the patience and the commitment to make the journey. “We will work hard, stay up longer, pay attention more than our competition. We will because we have to,” he says. “In order to make a difference, we have to.”