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.

Money saved by eschewing difficult news stories (which require hunting for documents, interviewing reluctant people and eliminating false leads) can be poured instead into expensive promotions and anchor salaries which run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For station managers, it's a lucrative trade-off. They know that besides the strength of prime-time programming, one of the main reasons viewers choose a newscast is for its anchors.

The result: Across the nation, smarmy anchors send us live to the pileup on the interstate or gush about promising new breakthroughs in the war on fat because that, TV researchers tell them, is what we want.

But some stations manage to be different.
In KNXV's case, its highly recognizable, sometimes annoying, and often hard-hitting style emerged from the confluence of three key people, a shuffle of network affiliations, and a sleepy TV news market ripe for change. The station went on the air in 1979; media chain Scripps Howard purchased it in 1985, and a year later KNXV became the Valley's Fox affiliate.

But it took 15 years for KNXV to get into the news business. The station's first newscast aired August 1, 1994. Its first story: Tony Kovaleski reporting on a priest who had run afoul of the law.

When the newscast debuted, however, it was known that in a few months the station would become an ABC affiliate. In January 1995, a complex shakeup would rearrange network outlets on the local television dial, and a Fox station intending to produce 30 minutes of news each night aimed primarily at a younger audience would suddenly have to put on a full complement of daily shows as the ABC station.

News director Mary Cox had to hire a lot more people, and quickly.
Employees credit Cox with assembling a tightly knit and eclectic newsroom. Photographers in particular praise Cox for creating a newsroom where they were encouraged to collaborate with, rather than serve, reporters and anchors. Channel 15 was the first in the Valley to regularly credit photographers on the air.

The newscast's second important godfather arrived when Scripps Howard sent Bob Rowe to KNXV as its station manager.

"Bob Rowe was a wacky guy who treated everyone equally badly," says a Channel 15 producer who, like several current employees, asked not to be identified. "Bob was 'excommunicated' [by Scripps Howard] to Phoenix because he was a radical-idea person. That's why the first shows were so jarring."

Employees say Rowe was the one who came up with the "No Chit Chat" slogan and the extreme visual style. "Discontinuity was the key to his vision. He said we needed to be jarring because viewers were complacent. It lacked continuity, but it made people pay attention," says the producer.

Channel 15 reporters didn't stand and talk to the camera, they threw things at it. They walked or ran up stairs while they talked. The station's cameras appeared to have been seized by a pack of hyperactive children who couldn't stay still for a second.

Add frenetic editing, staccato, synthesized rock riffs, and prismatic blue graphics, and a truly eye-catching--if sometimes irksome--newscast was created.

"Everyone was really into making it happen. If one of the anchors did chitchat, they got hammered. . . . It was a positive atmosphere for people to be creative," the producer adds.

In October 1994, Susan Sullivan, New York attorney and journalist, replaced news director Mary Cox (who is presently assistant news director at KPHO-TV Channel 5 but did not return calls from New Times).

Employees describe a battle for control over the newsroom between station manager Rowe and news director Sullivan.

Sullivan won the battle, they say, and before long Rowe left for Cleveland. General manager Brad Nilsen--a man with a sales, not news, background--chose not to replace Rowe, and for nearly a year Sullivan ran her newsroom with almost no interference from upper management.

Cox had hired a creative and an egalitarian crew, Bob Rowe had directed it to create an eye-catching style, and Sullivan added the final ingredient: a commitment to aggressive, serious journalism.

On January 9, 1995, the No Chit Chat newscast became the Valley's ABC affiliate. Its impact on viewers, critics and other stations was almost immediate.

Anchor Paul Joncich is a newcomer, having arrived just last October, but he's aware that things at Channel 15 were very different in the not-too-distant past.

"They say it was like a utopia, the perfect news world," he tells New Times. "I've been in some pretty big markets, and I've never seen anything like what they are describing. Sometimes I wonder if they're exaggerating. What they describe sure sounds like a nice place."

Reporters who worked in that environment say they're not exaggerating. Even though many of them have scattered to markets across the country, they still remember vividly their Channel 15 experience.

Jaie Avila, one of "The Investigators" who now covers the Inland Empire for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles: "I remember working on a story for three weeks and going in to my news director, Susan Sullivan, and saying: 'You know, I just don't have it. I'm missing x, y and z.' And she said, 'It's not ready? We'll wait. Eventually, you'll get it.' Sure enough, a month and a half passed, and I had the story together. . . . That's unheard of in local TV news."

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