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.

But KNXV was an ABC affiliate, and one owned by Scripps Howard, a company few would consider offbeat or cutting edge. It's not surprising that the station's parent company would want greater ratings than second place. It's also not surprising that the young station would go through many changes. But what employees say they weren't prepared for is that a newscast with such impact would, in only a few months, be almost completely scrapped.

Susan Sullivan, wanting to be closer to her ailing mother, left for Washington, D.C., in July 1996. General manager Brad Nilsen finally filled the vacant position of station manager with Michael Kronley, who for five years had run WSOC-TV, the No. 1 newscast in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kronley has hired two news directors since Sullivan's departure, but employees say Kronley was, and still is, in firm control of the newsroom.

And Kronley's vision of news, they say, is no utopia.

For some employees, it was the way Darya Folsom was forced out. For others, it was the cancellation of "Al's World."

But for still others, the moment when they realized that KNXV had changed utterly occurred during a 5 p.m. broadcast in October when they watched Emmy-award-winning investigative reporter Bob Woodruff standing on the 202 Freeway in a hard hat.

Woodruff had been sent to cover the opening of a new lane on the freeway. And under the new Channel 15 rubric, the opening of a freeway lane was earth-shattering information that had to be covered live.

So Woodruff, who might have been out talking to sources or gathering more compelling news, was stuck standing on the highway so he could talk to anchors via the magic of live television. An ADOT official had insisted that Woodruff wear a hard hat.

He looked ridiculous, employees say, which magnified for them the moment's symbolic weight: They knew their news utopia was gone forever.

"Everybody realized it," says one reporter. "Bob about blew a gasket."
Michael Kronley, predictably, disagrees.
"The investigative element that the station developed a few years ago is terrific, and certainly no one has suggested losing that edge. And we certainly haven't in the past few months since I've been here," Kronley says in a telephone interview. "Perhaps using the 'Live, local, late-breaking' as a slogan as opposed to 'No Chit Chat' represents a change, certainly. But I think that's more a change in the marketing."

Jaie Avila remembers things differently. The reporter says Kronley made it clear to him that time-consuming investigations were out: "The current management never told me we can't afford to do these types of stories. They just came out and said we don't want to do these kind of stories. Instead of having a two-minute piece on tape that you spent a month and a half investigating, they all of a sudden just wanted long live shots from the news of the day, the traffic accident or warehouse fire of the day.

"I asked [Kronley] when I first met him, 'How do the people at the parent company, Scripps Howard, feel about the job we're doing out here? We just started up, and yet we're getting all this critical acclaim, blowing people away in the Emmy competition and we're not doing too bad in the ratings.' . . . And he looked at me and said, 'Well, you know the awards are nice, but ratings are what's important.'

"In the business world of news, he's right. And maybe we were all a little naive to think that all of the interesting stories we were doing and the awards we were winning and respect we were gaining was going to make a difference and change the economic reality," Avila says.

And economic reality, in Kronley's newsroom, means listening to market research.

"Viewers have told us, through several research projects we have done, that they enjoy seeing live reports," Kronley says. "So once the journalism is taken care of . . . it becomes a function of how do you want that particular story to look.

"Viewers like seeing reporters live. It gives them an impression that the story is complete and up-to-date . . ."

"It's kind of like the happy news," says a reporter derisively. "You see it in every market. . . . Make everything live, make it look like you have a million people out there working for you. Every reporter knows what that means: You're not going to have time to do your stories. . . . It's not a good thing, from a reporter's standpoint, unless, of course, you're just in love with being on television, because it does give you more face time. I think most of the people who worked at Channel 15 didn't give a shit about that. They cared about doing a good story and doing it in a very honest way."

"After Kronley came," Jaie Avila says, "suddenly there was a quota--just like there is at every other station--that there had to be a couple of live shots in every show whether they were warranted or not. Live is fun. But as any reporter will tell you, you cannot . . . do real news gathering if you're standing around waiting for a live shot."

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