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.

Darya Folsom, former anchor, now reporting at the Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C.: "If a story had many layers to it, we were told to be as in-depth as we could. And the whole idea of layering the stories was to get some context and get to something deeper.

"Creativity was encouraged to the point that if you did something mainstream, you were laughed at. You would never be laughed at for trying something new and failing."

Tony Kovaleski, who will soon move to a station in Houston: "We were going after the stories that other news organizations wouldn't because they took time. You had to invest hours and days and weeks. . . . That's what Susan Sullivan brought in. She brought in a big-city, a big-league perspective. She wanted to tell stories that were bigger than the fire on the corner or the three-car accident down the street."

Avila again: "There was a tremendous competition between reporters there. And between photographers. I came in every day and I knew Chris Heinbaugh and Tony Kovaleski and Bob Woodruff had these fabulous stories in the hopper . . . and it put pressure on you to come up with something yourself . . . even if it took months and tons of overtime, you did it because you had to keep up with these outstanding people. . . . It was like an oasis for reporters and photographers. And word did get out around the nation."

Another reporter, who asked not to be named: "What Bob Rowe and Mary Cox were trying to establish from the very beginning was a philosophy that if something wasn't happening that moment, you didn't pretend that it was. That's what every other newscast in the country does. They go live for live's sake and we wanted to get away from that. We wanted to get away from anchors just talking to each other for no reason. We didn't want to limit our stories to a minute and 20 seconds. And it was working, as far as I was concerned."

A sign that things indeed were working: At other stations in the Valley, cameras suddenly began bobbing and weaving and "investigations" got more play (even if the "investigator" did nothing more than report on a meeting).

Another indication: In 1995, KNXV received 29 regional Emmy nominations, second only to KTVK-TV Channel 3's 36 nominations, for work the previous year (Phoenix and Tucson stations compete against their counterparts in Salt Lake City and Albuquerque). KNXV placed second even though its newscast had been on the air for less than half of 1994. Ratings leader KPNX Channel 12 placed third, with 26 nominations.

The following year, KNXV dominated the regional Emmys, garnering 51 nominations, more than doubling second-place KPHO's 24. Ratings leader KPNX finished fourth with 16.

The station rose quickly in the all-important race for ratings, usually coming in just ahead of KTVK Channel 3 for second place in the five-station market at 10 p.m. (Channel 3's strength is remarkable, considering that it had lost its ABC affiliation.)

Susan Sullivan and her reporters also made an impact on local law enforcement. Police and prosecutors weren't used to such an aggressive television station; in March 1995, County Attorney Richard Romley pursued a court order to force Channel 15 to turn over a tape of child pornography, and threatened station employees with prosecution for possessing it. The station had acquired the tape during a Chris Heinbaugh investigation of porn on the Internet.

"[Sullivan] seems stunned by the controversy, which has included condemnation by radio talk-show hosts who used the incidents to keep their phone lines buzzing," wrote the Arizona Republic.

Heinbaugh won an Emmy for his story, which showed that child pornography--and child predators--lurked on computer networks.

Other award-winning pieces by "The Investigators" included a Tony Kovaleski report about a controversial Payson church; a Chris Heinbaugh expose of Challenged Workers of America, a telemarketing company whose workers pretended to be retarded; and last year's series by Kovaleski on the Cartwright School District, whose administrators allegedly used public money for private use.

"Investigators" pieces weren't universally hard-hitting, however. Republic television critic Dave Walker teased Channel 15 for a Bill Spencer piece that featured the reporter, in full Mike Wallace mode, confronting a baker for selling fattening muffins advertised as low-fat.

But even if Channel 15 didn't always live up to 60 Minutes-like standards, or if its anchors still occasionally lapsed into chitchat, the station's sense of urgency was palpable. KNXV's reporters seemed relatively fearless; they might not get the whole story, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

That such a commitment to enterprising reporting was noteworthy reflects the normally limited credibility given to local television news in the pantheon of American journalism. Newspapers have eagerly pointed out in the past that the transcript of a 30-minute newscast cannot fill even a single page of newsprint.

So KNXV was king of a rather short hill.
Naturally, the other stations are reluctant to praise Channel 15 or admit that the station had any impact. But some manage to be magnanimous.

"Not every 'Investigators' piece was all that investigative, but they did some good stuff," says KTVK Channel 3's vice president for news, Phil Alvidrez. "Their style would overwhelm the substance sometimes, but the competition they've brought has been good for the market. If they hadn't been an ABC affiliate, they would have been considered an incredible success."

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