When the News IS the News
By Kevin Brass
(page 3 of 3)Channel 10 might have felt more secure in re-signing Hunt, knowing that Channel 8’s big budget has not translated into ratings supremacy. Channel 8 consistently beats Channel 10 at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., but not by much, and it is weak in the mornings.
Meanwhile, Channel 7/39 dominates at 11 p.m., a phenomenon that can no longer be dismissed as a simple by-product of NBC’s strong prime-time lineup. With Walker fading into the 4 p.m. newscast, Channel 7/39 boasts the most consistent anchor duo in town: Marty Levin and Susan Taylor. But this has also been a time of change at 7/39, in the wake of the departure last year of general manager Neil Derrough, who defined the station for 12 years.
But the most interesting competition is, without a doubt, at 10 p.m., once the sole domain of KUSI-TV. After years of building an image as the old-folks’ home of local TV news, KUSI inexplicably dropped the old familiar faces at the exact moment they would have provided a stark contrast to the adolescent out-of-towners on the new stations. Gone were Cathy Clark and Brian Christie, as the station brought in new, big-market anchors for the weeknight and weekend shows, led by former national tabloid anchor Alan Frio and uber-anchorwoman Susan Lennon. KUSI also launched a 7 p.m. newscast, virgin territory for the ever-expanding local TV news day.
At 10 p.m., KUSI still fared well in February, but it lost audience to the upstarts. XETV, with its self-proclaimed “attitude” and vertigo-inducing graphics, had a surprisingly strong performance, considering it had only been on the air for a few months. XETV was hampered by its inability to “go live” in most situations, due to equipment and permit delays. But XETV reportedly is spending $14 million on its news operation, including the revamping of a 25,000-square-foot building to house its fledgling operation. The typical newscast blazes through stories, spending a fraction of the time taken by other stations.
The other new kid, KSWB, is presenting a lass radical on-air presence, but it has been struggling to establish itself. On some nights during the sweeps period, it barely earned a 1 rating. The audience for the Monday through Friday newscast was 30 percent smaller than the station attracted with sitcom reruns a year earlier.
Nevertheless, KSWB general manager Lise Markham says she is “thrilled” by her team’s early ratings. XETV’s numbers were skewed by the Fox network’s big ratings sweeps stunts, like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? and daredevil shows that helped build an audience for the 10 p.m. news. Take out the non-sweeps events, and KSWB and Fox are slugging it out, she says. The big-hit Warner Bros. shows tend toward the Buffy the Vampire Slayer crowd. “We’re not going to get 18-year-olds to watch news,” Markham says. “We need to reach out to people not watching our shows from 8 to 10.”
Behind the scenes, KSWB has had its share of turmoil. Start-up news director Kathy Gradza left abruptly a few days before the show was due to go on the air, after differences with Markham, who a few weeks earlier had praised her as “a real dynamo, a go-getter and extremely ethical.” Within a few weeks of the program’s debut, the show’s producer was gone, and weekday anchor Dave Carlin was replaced by weekend anchor Jeff Powers, a blond La Jolla native.
All the news stars at KSWB and XETV are young, recruited from places like Little Rock and El Paso, where they learned the basics of live shots and on-air banter. The average Fox viewer is 32; all the main Fox anchors are in their early 30s. At KSWB, they are promoting slogans like “fresh-faced and focused” to describe the news team.
The new wave of talent may not be able to find Balboa Park without a Thomas Brothers map book, but they do work cheap. The main anchors at KSWB and XETV barely earn six figures, a third of the paychecks of the stars of San Diego’s established newscasts. Reporters typically make between $30,000 and $40,000 at the new stations, which is rapidly becoming an industry standard as stations shed their older, higher-priced reporters.
Times are tough for San Diego’s aging TV news staffers. With stations looking to cut salaries even as they spend millions on anchors and new technology, the recent list of disappeared ones—top-heavy with elder women—includes Liz Purcell, Clark and Gina Lew.
More departures are expected soon. Channel 8’s John Culea has been banished from the anchor desk and now is called upon to do standups in the rain. Longtime Channel 8 reporter and anchor Sandra Maas brought in her agent to argue her contract after she was taken off the 4 p.m. newscast in April and reassigned to the 5 a.m. show (Ledger took her former 4 p.m. slot, at least temporarily). And at Channel 10, veteran reporters are grumbling over contracts that cut some of their benefits.
None of the veteran San Diego reporters was hired by the two virgin news departments. Both avoided the older local reporters like the plague.
Pando says he didn’t hire any of the veterans for “branding” reasons. “The first time they see our new faces, I want them associated with Fox News,” Pando says, noting that the station did hire several locals for the newsroom, including assignment manager Paul Levikow, a former KUSI assignment editor who owned and operated a downtown news service for several years.
Within the stations, the focus is not on the details of Tuck’s contract or the debate about whether KUSI’s Lennon wears colored contacts, it’s the huge news hole that needs filling. The established stations are cranking out three to fours hours of news a day, not to mention the cable news shows and hourly updates. The battle for the mornings now starts at 5 a.m. Crews are in constant motion. There’s always another live shot, another 1-minute hole to fill.
“I always loved the business,” says Purcell, who left Channel 8 last year, after 20 years, when she refused to sign yet another contract that didn’t include a raise. “Every day you could learn something new, and it was interesting and challenging. It’s no longer like that. You don’t have time to develop a story.”
It’s going to get worse. All the established stations are racing to expand their Internet and cable presence. KGTV recently renewed its cable deals for Channel 15, which gives it flexibility to add news into other time periods. The growth of KBNT, the Spanish-language Univision affiliate, has produced a powerful force in the Latino community, further splintering the audience.
The new operations are also expanding. XETV is already hiring for a morning show, which may debut as early as this summer. A morning show is also the most likely next step for KSWB. Far from subsiding, the real competition, staffers know, is just beginning.