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.

"I think the newsroom is pretty happy," Kronley says, noting that he's met with every employee and only heard one or two questions about the emphasis on live TV.

In the October memo to Nilsen, however, Kronley seems well aware that he was making fundamental changes to the station, and that it had resulted in resentment. The memo--not meant for circulation in the newsroom when it was written--also gives a look into Kronley's strategic vision.

Kronley was sure to list the station's strengths first, and at the top of that list: "Upper management."

He also paid homage to Robin Sewell and sports anchor Brad Steinke--whom he had hired--and to the ABC Network.

Among the station's weaknesses, Kronley listed male anchor Marc Bailey, the newscast's "on-air look," and "unfocused, irrelevant newscasts."

Under "threats" to KNXV, Kronley lists "Complacency over news awards," the "Old 'Foxies'" and their refusal or failure to adapt, "morale," and "inattention to viewers."

Kronley then writes an assessment of the other stations in the market (see accompanying story) and concludes with a narrative history of Channel 15.

Kronley avers that viewers were not as impressed as the "Old Foxies" were with the No Chit Chat format. The station's mission, he writes, "resulted in a commitment to investigative reporting . . . and an internal belief that the station was providing, for Phoenix, a radically different content alternative." (emphasis added)

"News 15 must continue to move to the center, while retaining its edge. . . . We will retain the investigative edge. Features and light material need to be eliminated from the newscast. . . . While the station favors continuing the philosophy, we wonder if we have been branded "No Chit Chat" forever . . .

"Eliminating our weaknesses, concentrating on our strengths, and hoping for a break in NBC's stranglehold on prime time, leaves us with a clear shot at winning the late news. . . . The market is ripe for the taking."

If the No. 1 spot is ripe for the taking, Kronley may be just the person who will take Channel 15 there. For five years, he led WSOC, the ratings leader in the Charlotte market.

He also led in another category. A 1995 study of local newscasts found that Kronley's WSOC was among the nation's top 10 for mayhem content.

Kronley's success at WSOC doesn't encourage some KNXV employees. "WSOC is notoriously live everything," says one reporter. "They even did these things in Charlotte called 'look lives' [taped packages edited to appear live]. . . . They never said it was live, but the obvious impression you get is that that's a live shot. But it's completely taped. It's one of the most unethical things I've ever heard about."

"We never said that they were live," Kronley responds when he's asked about the "look lives." "We had a different graphic sense for something that was live and something that was taped."

Could the viewer tell the difference?
"I have no idea what the viewers might see or not. I mean, it's a standard thing in the industry."

"Ican't imagine Kronley admitted to that," says a media consultant who studies the Phoenix market. The consultant is paid to help another Valley station improve its numbers, so he didn't want that station knowing how much he admired the old Channel 15 newscast.

"I think all of us wish we had as many people as they did working on investigations. People noticed. It had impact. I went to IRE [the Investigative Reporters and Editors convention] last year, and [KNXV reporter] Chris Heinbaugh was like the lead panelist. Everybody wanted to hear him, and he had good impact stuff. His panel was very well-attended. People around the country recognized him."

The consultant says he's surprised that Channel 15 didn't attempt to build on the identity--and the audience--that it had already established rather than simply scrapping it for a traditional format.

But media expert Phyllis Kaniss, author of Making Local News and an assistant dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that the kind of change Kronley is bringing to KNXV is occurring all over the country.

"There's a fair amount of push in recent years to really squeeze those last few ratings points out. You could have had a very good show that was drawing in a substantial number of people. But you decide that to make a little extra money, you make it more sensational, you package things differently, you do a number of things to bring in more viewers," Kaniss says.

Partly because of the fragmented nature of local government, she explains, news in recent years has gravitated to subjects that affect as many people as possible, such as health or consumer news, sports and weather, and the lurid crimes that are shocking no matter where they occur.

That's partly why we're not likely in the future to see a nine-minute Tony Kovaleski report exposing corruption at the Cartwright School District; news directors worry that people in suburban areas might not care about problems with inner-city schools.

An inner-city five-car pileup, however, is another matter.
Stations can't get a reporter there for a live report fast enough. "It's a marketing gimmick," Kaniss says. "They're not there for a journalistic purpose. They're there for a marketing purpose, to give the illusion that the reporter is giving you the latest information, and that the reporter is an active journalist.

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