Chit Happens

The parking lot at KNXV-TV Channel 15 contains a vestige of the station's earlier, quirkier incarnation. The rusting "Al's World" convertible, which once carried reporter Al Feinberg around the state for a series of offbeat stories, now rests under a tarp. One tire is flat.

Like many trademark elements of the former "No Chit Chat" newscast, the vehicle no longer fits the station's image of itself.

But so many of Channel 15's signature elements--aggressive reporting; investigative pieces; a stylized, perpetual-motion MTV look and sound; a dearth of vacuous anchor banter--have been junked in the past six months, the car's denouement is no surprise.

In September, Channel 15's new station manager, Michael Kronley, began making significant changes to the two-year-old newscast.

Kronley had a fixation with live spots--putting reporters on camera and on location even when the reporters were standing in front of darkened office buildings. The live spots, combined with an emphasis on crime, car crashes, health-and-consumer reporting, began crowding out the investigative reporting, inventive photography and offbeat features which had come to characterize the station.

By January, when Kronley hired the young station's fourth news director, Channel 15 had completed its transformation. New billboards soon appeared around town, replacing slogans like "No Chit Chat" and "What's Buggin' You?" with the reassuring smiles of Marc Bailey, Robin Sewell and Paul Joncich.

Like the other stations, Channel 15 now wants you to fall in love with its anchors.

Kronley says the changes are merely a new marketing approach, that the newsroom environment and its newscast remain substantially the same.

His employees tell a different story.
New Times interviewed dozens of present and former employees, including on-air talent, photographers, producers and managers, and what they had to say was remarkably consistent.

They tell of a "utopian" newsroom under previous news director Susan Sullivan. They say Sullivan demanded a commitment to creativity and experimentation, and gave reporters and producers the time and resources to outdo the competition.

Under Kronley, Channel 15's newscast has been dumbed down and mainstreamed. Anchors now emote as if they were breaking bad news unwillingly or can't wait to read an upbeat story. Reporters, meanwhile, have been hamstrung in their attempts to cover any story that takes more than a few hours to prepare.

Employees say those changes produced a newsroom smoldering with resentment. Morale, they say, reached low ebb in December and since has been replaced with a quiet resignation.

As experienced reporters and photographers leave the station in droves, they are replaced with less-experienced (and lower-paid) employees capable of the easier regimen of live shots and spot news.

Kronley's retooling of Channel 15 may prove to be very profitable for Scripps Howard, the station's parent company. In previous jobs, he's ridden the traditional model to ratings success. His emphasis on mayhem covered live (even if the bodies have all been carted away) may turn out to be the best strategy for cutting into the huge lead enjoyed by KPNX-TV Channel 12, the leader at 10 p.m., and its warm-and-fuzzy newscast read by well-loved anchors.

But Phoenix loses what for a short time was one of the rarest of television phenomena: a newscast that didn't look or act like all the rest.

Local television news has an awesome responsibility it probably doesn't deserve: Most Americans now rely on local TV as their sole source of information about their communities.

But to judge by local newscasts, those communities are defined by an endless series of violent crimes, spectacular car crashes, celebrity crises and last-second sports victories.

Little of it resembles everyday life.
TV's obsession with such stories largely results from a simple economic fact: It's easier and cheaper to cover crime and car crashes than to look for more profound stories.

And such mayhem lures huge audiences.
To make sure every local station gets that message, networks pay consultants to school local affiliates in coverage of death and mayhem, ensuring that newscasts in Portland, Maine, look remarkably like newscasts in Portland, Oregon.

The model the consultants are pushing this year is the mantra shared by both KNXV ("live, local, late-breaking") and KPHO-TV Channel 5 ("local, live, late-breaking").

News directors are quick to point out that an emphasis on reporting live from crime scenes is what viewers tell them they want in a broadcast. But news directors are less candid about how that philosophy conveniently dovetails with their cost-cutting desires.

Television news is primarily reactive; producers monitor police scanners, scan wire services, read press releases and dispatch reporters to be briefed by government officials, police officers and firefighters.

It's unusual for a television reporter to spend more than a day on a story. Three days is usually the maximum, and that's considered an "in-depth" piece which may be apportioned a full minute on the air.

Unlike daily print reporters, television reporters rarely cover beats. So when they do encounter more complex issues, they may have little or no background to help them contextualize a story. Even experienced reporters can find it daunting to summarize a far-reaching piece of legislation or a labyrinthine legal fight with only an hour or two of preparation.

It's much easier to point a camera at a burning car and tell viewers about an alternate way home.

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."

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."

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."

It's a frustrating change for reporters. One reporter remembers Bob Rowe confronting him after he had done a Thanksgiving live shot to inform viewers that holiday traffic was heavy.

"He said to us, 'Why did we do that live shot? What was so newsworthy that we needed to stand out there and talk to people? . . . Why are we out there? Is it any surprise that it's busy?'

"Now contrast that with poor Bob Woodruff having to stand in front of Gammage Auditorium hours after [a Bill Clinton appearance] while behind him trash trucks are cleaning up the mess. You know. That, to me, is a clear indication of the difference."

Carl Lemon, a former photographer, says that reporters aren't the only ones affected by the new policies. "When you start doing live shots instead of shooting and editing packages, you're taken out of the loop. A live shot isn't nearly as creative as telling a story, meeting somebody, going through their life for a day, then going back and editing a story. When you're doing a live shot, your creative input is lessened. You just don't have the time."

Former producer Luke Funk says that KNXV's previous lack of live coverage forced it to do better reporting. "We didn't have a helicopter at that time, so we went down and covered news on the ground. And nine times out of 10, we got a better story than the other guys because we were down on the ground talking to people. . . . I won an award on a show I did last year on a car accident on the freeway and everyone else did their 30-second bits with their helicopters hovering overhead. We went down with a reporter, Tony Kovaleski, and found out that all of these people were having problems getting through to 911 on their cell phones so, bingo, we had a great lead story because we went down and covered it like a traditional news story."

The KNXV newscast from that night won an Associated Press award for newscast of the year.

"If we had had our helicopter there, we wouldn't have had the story," Funk says.

But Luke Funk is gone, and KNXV has since acquired a helicopter.

Many in KNXV's newsroom say they're still hurt by the way Kronley introduced change to the station. Like the day in September when Darya Folsom went home early.

People at Channel 15 had expected the station to bring in a new team of anchors to share responsibilities with Marc Bailey and Folsom, but no one expected Folsom to be treated the way she was. One afternoon the diminutive, energetic anchor was told that she would be replaced in the 10 and six o'clock broadcasts. Folsom would be relegated to the 5 p.m. news, and would return to reporting. With the demotion came a substantial cut in pay. Folsom was given the rest of the day off, and after she had left, the rest of the newsroom was told of the change. It felt like an execution, employees say.

No one was surprised that she left in December to rejoin Susan Sullivan in Washington, D.C.

Folsom was replaced by Robin Sewell, who more closely fits the typical newsreader-as-celebrity model. Sewell majored in theater arts at UCLA and tried, unsuccessfully, to make a career as an actress. She turned to television news in 1990, interning in Phoenix at then-CBS affiliate Channel 10. She's worked in several cities since then, most recently in Sacramento, where she met San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Sewell regularly shows up on San Francisco society pages, accompanying Brown to public events.

A month after Folsom's demotion, weekend weather forecaster Janie Peterson was fired. Peterson says she still doesn't know why. Other employees wonder why, too.

Some also wonder why "Al's World" had to go. "That just mystifies me," Avila says. "Here you have someone who I still view as the best television feature reporter and one of the funniest guys in television, best writers, and he comes to News 15 and everyone recognizes his genius, and yet they put him through just a nightmare."

Al Feinberg's clever feature stories had seemed to provide a smart counterpoint to the investigative, hard news stories that were leading the broadcast. After his "Al's World" trademark was canned, however, Feinberg has seldom been seen on camera. Employees complain that Feinberg has been squandered, that it was insulting to see the talented writer and reporter relegated to writing copy for special reports read by anchors as if they had reported the stories themselves.

(Several employees say that Kronley has a clever line about feature stories that he uses to impress people with his purported hard-news style: "My idea of a feature is a rapist getting caught.")

Feinberg decided not to talk to New Times, and Kronley says Feinberg is appearing on camera now more often. For a time, Kronley says, Feinberg could not go on air for health reasons. Recently, viewers could catch him standing knee deep in snow reporting--live--that snow was falling in Flagstaff.

The dismissals and reassignments in September and October threw a pall over the newsroom. Even Kronley, in an October 4 memo to general manager Brad Nilsen, recognized that low morale had become a "threat." Since then, firings have given way to a steady stream of resignations as experienced employees take jobs elsewhere.

"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.

"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."

Others have joined Luke Funk in an exit stampede. It's left the station understaffed; new news director Jeff Klotzman says he plans to hire two new reporters. Both, he says, will do investigative work.

Not all employees are unhappy, of course. Mark Lodato, a reporter who's been around since the beginning of the newscast, says he's encouraged by the changes: "Personally, I have no problem with the chain of events at the station. Today, we're doing a lot more breaking news coverage, a lot more live reports, and personally I enjoy doing those kinds of stories, too. So I am just as happy today as I was two years ago. . . . Now I think we're more responsive to the viewers' needs," he says.

Another former employee, promotions man Galen Herod, says that he misses the old Channel 15, but he thinks employee unhappiness is overwrought. "I think people are unhappy because it's a human nature thing. . . . They had some pride of ownership of [the station's original format] and then . . . when the management took it back, it hurt people's feelings. And management tried to be gentle as possible about this, I feel. . . . You know how employees talk to each other and keep each other depressed.

"You can't blame the morale thing just on management. There's also people cashing in and feeling that the little group is fracturing," Herod says.

Kronley agrees, pointing out that the departure of most of "The Investigators" is a testament to the good work they did at Channel 15: Reporters like Bob Woodruff and Tony Kovaleski are snaring plum assignments in great markets.

"Money plays a big role in it," Jaie Avila responds. "You move on to a new market and you make a lot more money, but I think they would have held on to a lot of the core people just for love of working there." More of the experienced reporters would have stayed if the environment hadn't changed so drastically, he says.

"It's becoming a typical newsroom . . . everything has changed," says another reporter. "As a journalist, it's a big bummer to have to worry about getting the ratings up, not necessarily putting out a good product. They make no bones about it; they tell us this isn't a prison . . . if you want to leave, you can leave."

Last week, Virginia Silva, one of the original "Investigators," let KNXV know that she's doing just that. In two weeks, she leaves for Los Angeles.

Only Chris Heinbaugh--who, with his six Emmy awards, is one of the most respected local television reporters in the country--remains from the original team. Asked to discuss the state of Channel 15, Heinbaugh responded: "It's probably best if I just say nothing.

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