Nightly presence: for some,
worth the cost
Originally published in Current, Sept. 22, 1997
By Steve Behrens
There's a boomlet of interest among public TV stations in giving themselves a "nightly presence" in the form of a local news/talk program:
- In Orange County, Calif., KOCE started a show this month to elevate its profile--and news coverage of its home suburb--in the Los Angeles market.
- Maryland PTV has just announced it will launch Newsnight Maryland in November, coanchored by a former Baltimore reporter Camilla Carr.
- Pittsburgh's WQED is raising funds to launch its own weeknight show sometime within the next year.
- WGBH put more money, journalism and a star host into its offering, creating Greater Boston last January.
- And in Los Angeles, KCET has raised $2.7 million to upgrade Life & Times next January and expand to a 60-minute version a year later, says KCET news Vice President Valerie Zavala.
Still, many public TV stations leave a canned taste and a nobody's-home impression, going live mostly for pledge drives and relying on satellites and videotapes to fill their schedules.
"I for one believe every public television station should have a nightly news program, and there are very few that do," said Jim Lehrer, cheering on Maryland PTV's announcement at a luncheon in Baltimore.
Indeed, an informal Current survey found only about a dozen nightly local programs [listing] among nearly 200 public TV licensees.
In fact, it's surprising that there are even that many, some decades old, and that the number is growing at all. In 1991, a CPB-backed economic analysis by the Boston Consulting Group questioned spending limited cash on local productions when the national ones are seen by so many more people and form the foundation of public TV's appeal. And WGBH soon canceled its longtime nightly show, The Ten O'Clock News, making enemies that still periodically deplore the decision in Boston Globe columns.
The few who go nightly are betting that local programs are what will distinguish pubcasters and justify their existence in the megachannel bazaar, as Maryland PTV President Rob Shuman predicts.
"Otherwise, we're just pass-throughs," says Jack Willis, past president of KTCA, who started Newsnight Minnesota in 1994. North Carolina Now had already begun that year, and Houston's Weeknight Edition came along in 1995. WGBH, too, kept a nightly presence with a weeknightly talk show until January, when it recruited a sharp behind-the-scenes newswoman, Emily Rooney, and put her in front of the cameras for Greater Boston.
Judy Stoia, WGBH's executive producer, indicates that local public TV stations might do well to follow public radio's example. "One reason NPR has been so successful," she says, "is that there is a sizeable segment of our audience and potential audience that wants smart and more in-depth coverage of the community."
Steve Kremer, executive producer of the new Maryland program, sees a chance to attract relatively young viewers, who tend to be especially unhappy with the quality of TV news and aren't attached to favorite newscasts.
And that may not be a pipedream. When KCET's Life & Times went from single- to multi-topic a while ago, it boosted its audience significantly--mostly by adding viewers under 40, says Zavala.
All of the dozen weeknightlies surveyed by Current are half-hour programs, but they adopt several formats and many styles:
relatively fast-paced and traditional newscasts in New Jersey and Oklahoma,
magazine-like programs with interviews and hard news elements in Alabama, Delaware, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Orange County, Calif., and
classy talk-based magazines, often with no more than one field-produced segment a day in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Some are idiosyncratic by design, as in the last category, and others mimic commercial TV newscasts, complete with half-hearted happy talk. Hosts of the shows variously seat themselves on couches (North Carolina), or a news set (Oklahoma) or at a conference table, with sleeves rolled up (Chicago).
WGBH and others maintain the rhythm of a commercial newscast, with cutaways for tune-in promos. Promos that ordinarily air between programs recently have been moved to these breaks to allow Greater Boston to start at 6:57 and keep more of the audience that just watched the NewsHour, explains Emily Rooney, who knows minute-by-minute Nielsens from her years as news director of WCVB in Boston.
Style differences aside, the nightlies tend to focus on "matters that matter," as Lehrer calls them, spending their time more selectively and reflectively than commercial newscasts.
Their producers are freed from having to boost their "story count" in an attempt to hijack as many eyeballs as possible, says Kremer, who has been a news executive at commercial stations in Reno and Detroit.
"We're not going to have helicopters and 12 reporters in the field with minicams, but what we can give is analysis of important stories, that commercial television at this time is ignoring," says Mary Field, executive producer of Chicago Tonight, who came to WTTW from a commercial station a year ago when her investigative unit shut down.
Instead of giving less than two minutes to the latest developments in a controversial drunk-driving case, as commercial stations often do, Greater Boston recently gave the case 14 minutes, says Rooney. "It gives you time to tell what happened, what has happened since then, what the concerns are on both sides. Then you start hearing what really happened." The viewer's understanding of the drunk-driving prosecution becomes more complex.
"Much news-telling is provocative--it sends you in one direction or another," says Rooney. "The family [of the victim] is naturally sympathetic, but there is clearly another side."
The bloody stories that lead many big-city newscasts are nowhere to be found on most public TV nightlies. Oklahoma ETV's newscast, otherwise slick and traditional, seems to make a point of running crime briefs only at the end of the show.
A journalism watchdog group, Rocky Mountain Media Watch, found a big statistical difference between KTCA's Newsnight Minnesota and commercial newscasts. Its content earned a Mayhem Index of 0, compared to the average of 42.
"Violence is not something we strive for or shy away from," says New Jersey Network's Bill Jobes. But because violent crimes are inherently local, he seldom puts them in a newscast that specializes in statewide news.
Viewers, as well as subjects of reporting, appreciate a difference in outlook. After Alabama PTV's For the Record aired a series of reports on an African-American community, a woman there told the TV crew, "You've come in and treated us like a group of citizens--you didn't just come in when there's a stabbing or a shooting or a drug raid."
Selectivity can mean devoting some 20 minutes of airtime and two weeks' work to tell a complex story like Alabama PTV's update on the Superfund campaign to clean up the worst toxic chemical dumps. A team led by anchor Sharyl Sutton visited and profiled all nine Superfund sites in the state last April.
Both Greater Boston and North Carolina Now have gradually adjusted their selectivity, moving from "back-of-the-book" features toward serious news. The latter began in the style of Group W's featurey Evening Magazine, says Executive Producer Scott Moore-Davis, but changed on the request of viewers. "They told us what you do well on public television is to cover the issues and the serious stories, and we're not getting that."
The show began leading with extended issue stories, but went light for the end of each show, says Moore-Davis. As NPR producer Bob Ferrante told him, those kickers are what will make the show memorable. Many kicker segments are devoted to reporter Bob Garner's quest to know every variety of barbeque served in the state. Garner, a substantial man, recently gave a "five little pigs" rating to one restaurant where he described and savored the pork entree and every side dish as it went down. He and the camera lingered over the hush puppies, which were "light golden brown ... with a good deal of cornmeal taste, not overly sweetened or seasoned."
Don't count on underwriters
Each station that developed a nightly has its own local reasons. At Maryland PTV, Shuman is asserting the network's interest in the state after the departure of predecessor Raymond Ho, who emphasized national production. And WQED is fixing a similar image problem in Pittsburgh, where critics of the station demand increased local production.
In several markets, there are news-coverage gaps to be filled, where the dominant big-city stations nearly ignore civic news in peripheral areas: northwestern Indiana, in the Chicago market; Delaware, on the outskirts of Philadelphia; and Orange County, near Los Angeles.
New Jersey Network's newscast--the giant of these nightlies with a weekly cume of 664,000 households--serves a doubly dissed state, which gets limited coverage from both Manhattan and Philadelphia stations and has few TV broadcasters of its own.
"I like to say our news approach is to cover New Jersey in the same fashion that the commercial networks cover the nation and the world," says Jobes, news director at NJN for 10 years. We try to capture a portrait of the state on that particular day."
States in general are undercovered by big-city stations, despite the states' large and growing responsibilities, because the news scenes are miles away in state capitals.
"In-depth" for Alabama PTV meant deep in the history of toxic waste dumps.
When state government gets some attention, the statehouse crowd loves it, of course. Regular viewers of Alabama PTV's For the Record, with its serious, detailed treatment of state capital news, would have to be political junkies of some kind. But the audience isn't a predictable political elite, says News Director Johanna Cleary. "You get callers who are not just calling from exclusive areas of Birmingham, but also from areas that are very rural, where there's not a huge per-capita income. They do care what's happening in the state and do want to know more detail."
Where state networks get subsidies from state government, it's usually the only way they can afford to produce nightlies. Annual budgets range from $200,000 to above $2 million, but many cluster around $500,000-600,000.
These costs are way more than corporations are willing to pay for the number of available underwriting credits. Alabama PTV brings in just $30,000 a year from its three corporate underwriters--well under one-tenth of its costs, says Cleary. North Carolina Now attracts some $50,000 in underwriting--about a quarter of its budget. Even at WTTW, underwriting for Chicago Tonight a few years ago covered just $1 out of every $6 of costs.
These economics thwart producers, who know from focus groups that viewers' eyelids stop drooping whenever the screen shifts from the studio to field-produced video, no matter the topic.
Alabama PTV lately has been beefing up the video in its headlines segment by sending out a producer/shooter team every day to grab footage for three or four stories, says Executive Director Judy Stone.
In Oklahoma, the state network keeps the video rolling through an unusual agreement with all network affiliates in Tulsa and the capital city: they let Oklahoma News Report rebroadcast any of their news reports, with credit, even on the night of original broadcast. In exchange, Oklahoma ETV gives them feeds and tapes of state capital events. "They are our colleagues and not our competitors," says Bill Thrash, the state network's deputy director.
Warm studio, warm audience
Going nightly was a difficult transition for the North Carolina network, as it may have been for others. Some staffers resented the upheaval at first, says Moore-Davis, e.p. of North Carolina Now. The network went through a real grieving process for the old programs that were sacrificed to free up resources for the new one.
Old work habits disappeared as the station's pace speeded up. "Where it might have taken three days to get a tape dub made," Moore-Davis says, "now you go down to the tape room and get it back in a half-hour."
The station gains a critical mass of talents that can be deployed for various new projects, as well as a flow of stories that can be repackaged or expanded for other uses.
Having a staff, studio and audience ready to go every weeknight has given KTCA flexibility to seize opportunities, including joint projects with minority newspapers, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a local cable company, says Bill Hanley, v.p. of Minnesota productions. "It's a terrfic platform on which you can launch other community initiatives. We've got the venue all set when a good idea comes across the desk." When necessary, Minnesota Newsnight can be extended by a half-hour to accommodate debates or major news coverage.
After three years on the air, the North Carolina program, for one, is becoming a constant option if not a constant companion for people in the state, crystalizing the network's identity.
"For people at the station, they can say, 'We're the ones who do North Carolina Now, and people will nod," says Moore-Davis. "That's kind of a great thing."
To Current's home page
Earlier story: WTTW's nightly interviews, hosted by John Callaway, give the station a place in Chicago journalism.
Earlier news: In Twin Cities, KTCA started a news show to uphold the region's high standards of TV news, which were being shortchanged by commercial stations.
Related story: Brief profiles of the dozen nightly programs produced locally in public TV.
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