Chit Happens

Not so long ago, upstart Channel 15 aired the most inventive, substantial TV news ever seen in Arizona. Now, in a quest for better ratings, it's trying to be like all the rest.

The parking lot at KNXV-TV Channel 15 contains a vestige of the station's earlier, quirkier incarnation. The rusting "Al's World" convertible, which once carried reporter Al Feinberg around the state for a series of offbeat stories, now rests under a tarp. One tire is flat.

Like many trademark elements of the former "No Chit Chat" newscast, the vehicle no longer fits the station's image of itself.

But so many of Channel 15's signature elements--aggressive reporting; investigative pieces; a stylized, perpetual-motion MTV look and sound; a dearth of vacuous anchor banter--have been junked in the past six months, the car's denouement is no surprise.

In September, Channel 15's new station manager, Michael Kronley, began making significant changes to the two-year-old newscast.

Kronley had a fixation with live spots--putting reporters on camera and on location even when the reporters were standing in front of darkened office buildings. The live spots, combined with an emphasis on crime, car crashes, health-and-consumer reporting, began crowding out the investigative reporting, inventive photography and offbeat features which had come to characterize the station.

By January, when Kronley hired the young station's fourth news director, Channel 15 had completed its transformation. New billboards soon appeared around town, replacing slogans like "No Chit Chat" and "What's Buggin' You?" with the reassuring smiles of Marc Bailey, Robin Sewell and Paul Joncich.

Like the other stations, Channel 15 now wants you to fall in love with its anchors.

Kronley says the changes are merely a new marketing approach, that the newsroom environment and its newscast remain substantially the same.

His employees tell a different story.
New Times interviewed dozens of present and former employees, including on-air talent, photographers, producers and managers, and what they had to say was remarkably consistent.

They tell of a "utopian" newsroom under previous news director Susan Sullivan. They say Sullivan demanded a commitment to creativity and experimentation, and gave reporters and producers the time and resources to outdo the competition.

Under Kronley, Channel 15's newscast has been dumbed down and mainstreamed. Anchors now emote as if they were breaking bad news unwillingly or can't wait to read an upbeat story. Reporters, meanwhile, have been hamstrung in their attempts to cover any story that takes more than a few hours to prepare.

Employees say those changes produced a newsroom smoldering with resentment. Morale, they say, reached low ebb in December and since has been replaced with a quiet resignation.

As experienced reporters and photographers leave the station in droves, they are replaced with less-experienced (and lower-paid) employees capable of the easier regimen of live shots and spot news.

Kronley's retooling of Channel 15 may prove to be very profitable for Scripps Howard, the station's parent company. In previous jobs, he's ridden the traditional model to ratings success. His emphasis on mayhem covered live (even if the bodies have all been carted away) may turn out to be the best strategy for cutting into the huge lead enjoyed by KPNX-TV Channel 12, the leader at 10 p.m., and its warm-and-fuzzy newscast read by well-loved anchors.

But Phoenix loses what for a short time was one of the rarest of television phenomena: a newscast that didn't look or act like all the rest.

Local television news has an awesome responsibility it probably doesn't deserve: Most Americans now rely on local TV as their sole source of information about their communities.

But to judge by local newscasts, those communities are defined by an endless series of violent crimes, spectacular car crashes, celebrity crises and last-second sports victories.

Little of it resembles everyday life.
TV's obsession with such stories largely results from a simple economic fact: It's easier and cheaper to cover crime and car crashes than to look for more profound stories.

And such mayhem lures huge audiences.
To make sure every local station gets that message, networks pay consultants to school local affiliates in coverage of death and mayhem, ensuring that newscasts in Portland, Maine, look remarkably like newscasts in Portland, Oregon.

The model the consultants are pushing this year is the mantra shared by both KNXV ("live, local, late-breaking") and KPHO-TV Channel 5 ("local, live, late-breaking").

News directors are quick to point out that an emphasis on reporting live from crime scenes is what viewers tell them they want in a broadcast. But news directors are less candid about how that philosophy conveniently dovetails with their cost-cutting desires.

Television news is primarily reactive; producers monitor police scanners, scan wire services, read press releases and dispatch reporters to be briefed by government officials, police officers and firefighters.

It's unusual for a television reporter to spend more than a day on a story. Three days is usually the maximum, and that's considered an "in-depth" piece which may be apportioned a full minute on the air.

Unlike daily print reporters, television reporters rarely cover beats. So when they do encounter more complex issues, they may have little or no background to help them contextualize a story. Even experienced reporters can find it daunting to summarize a far-reaching piece of legislation or a labyrinthine legal fight with only an hour or two of preparation.

It's much easier to point a camera at a burning car and tell viewers about an alternate way home.

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