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 there's a lot of illusion in local television news, that people think of the reporter and anchor as being things that they're not. They think that the anchor is out there actively reporting the news when many of them are just reading copy that's written by somebody else.

"Part of the promotional strategy of TV stations is to make viewers feel as if anchors and to some extent reporters also are their friends and their protectors. Whereas anyone who knows the business well knows that these are people who are trying to maximize profit, and in some cases exaggerating and distorting what's happening in your world and even needlessly frightening you in order to gain your attention and viewership."

Kaniss says that a station dedicated to more thorough investigations and not obsessed with live news is a rarity. It doesn't surprise her to hear that such a station is rapidly becoming like all the others.

"We didn't come here to look the same, to do the same crap as everyone else," says a Channel 15 employee. "They've never sold us on why we need to look like all the other stations. I mean, why do they want us to look just like Channel 12? They've never explained it to us."

Ironically, as Channel 15's anchors become more chatty, slow-paced Channel 12 and other local stations seem to be appropriating some of KNXV's old tactics.

KPHO Channel 5 and KPNX Channel 12 are now promoting their own investigative units more heavily. But it's KTVK Channel 3, the station stripped of its network affiliation in the 1995 reshuffle, which now seems to be taking the most chances--both in unconventional presentation and harder-hitting reports of the governor's travails, for example--and making them pay off.

In the last ratings period, Channel 3 overtook KPNX Channel 12 at five o'clock and was just behind at 6 p.m.

It's early, yet, to tell how the changes at KNXV will affect its standings in the ratings.

At 6 p.m., Channel 15 has, since July, increased both its rating (percentage of total TV households watching a particular station) and share (percentage of households with TV sets in use tuned in to the station). The station's share, for example, increased from 8 percent to 10 percent of Valley households with TV sets in use.

At 10 p.m., however, the most coveted time slot, Channel 15's numbers have decreased slightly. The station finished fourth with a 12 percent share in the most recent ratings period, behind not only KPNX and KTVK, but also KPHO Channel 5's mininews/Seinfeld-rerun combination.

Demographics at 10 p.m. have also declined. In TV land, "demos" is shorthand for the number of 25-to-54-year-olds watching--the most treasured audience, from an advertising standpoint. Between May and July, Channel 15's demos dipped from a share of 13 to a share of 10. It's a significant change, and employees say it will be difficult to improve those numbers as long as the newscast continues to be dumbed down.

Such ratings have a direct impact on the bottom line. At 10 p.m., ratings leader KPNX Channel 12 charges about $2,500 for a 30-second ad. On Thursday nights, when Channel 12 enjoys a huge ratings lead, advertisers pay $3,500.

In the same time slot, KNXV charges about $1,700 for a 30-second spot.

Producer Luke Funk says he didn't wait for many of the changes to occur at Channel 15 before he decided to leave.

"I saw the handwriting on the wall. I saw that we were moving away from a cutting-edge station that was trying to do news in a different style and moving back toward the status quo. And it seemed like it was becoming a consultant-driven product."

It's also beginning to openly pander to its audience.
Recently, the broadcast has begun to resemble more a game show than a news program. "Call in and see if you have money waiting!" said anchors cheerfully during a broadcast last month; in another room, a phone bank manned by volunteers waited to take calls from viewers. Days earlier, the state had published a list of thousands of people who had never claimed money the state owed them. Channel 15 was eager to help those viewers who were not only unaware they had cash coming but also apparently couldn't look themselves up on an alphabetical list.

Other phone banks are appearing with regularity. The most recent: for viewers who want to donate money to charity.

Perhaps if the station does enough good works, viewers will forgive it for calling them at home to tell them about sex addicts.

During the February sweeps period, a tired story about "sex addicts"--which exposed the shocking truth that some men spend too much of their salaries on strip joints--was salaciously teased for days using snippets of porno films and topless-bar footage.

But in a move that set a new low even for television promotions, KNXV hired a telemarketing firm to call households to pimp the piece.

Employees in the newsroom say the outrage of viewers was only matched by their own.

"We made a decision," Kronley says of the promotion. "There are very traditional ways to advertise our product. Radio, TV, newspapers. A number of stations around the country have been experimenting with alternative ways of advertising. And on four nights during the February rating period, we contracted with a telemarketing company to make a certain number of phone calls to see if it could help us to drive viewers. . . . I don't mind telling you the results were inconclusive as far as whether it drove viewers to it. And we're not sure if that's a direction we'll go with again, but we're not going to stop experimenting with other forms of promotion."

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