The first week in December, KGTV Channel 10 station management announced that long-time news director Jeff Klotzman would be departing at the end of the month and the entire news operation would be placed under the direction of Don Wells, the station's marketing director. This followed the September 30 debut of a cable news channel, largely financed by Cox Cable, that consists of repeats of earlier newscasts and, in the words of one critic, is "nothing more than a 24-hour commercial for Channel 10."
It's no secret that KGTV's long-held position as local news leader has eroded. In July 1996, the flagship 11:00 p.m. newscast fell from its number one perch in the quarterly Nielsen ratings to tie for second place with KFMB Channel 8. In November, Channel 10 again finished behind KNSD Channel 39. What's more, a report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released over the summer, found that just 65 percent of survey respondents regularly watch the local news, down from a high of 77 percent in 1993. Among younger viewers between the ages of 18 and 29, just 51 percent say they watch the local news, down from 64 percent a year ago. This decline is making news programmers desperate to make a splash with local viewers. Michael Real, director of San Diego State University's School of Communications, says, "They try to have lots of visual footage, lots of action footage in short snippets interspersed with happy talk. And then when you hit the sweeps, you get especially stupid stories, like does your wife need a bikini or an investigative report on nude dancers."
During the four "sweeps" months - February, May, July, and November - when station viewership is measured and advertising rates are set, KFMB Channel 8, traditionally the tamest of the three, has aired segments on "Stripper Moms," computer pornography, and this past November, "HMO Horror Stories." KNSD Channel 39 has done series on "The Selling of Sex" and child abductions, as well as a pre-Christmas investigative report on "what types of toys are best and worst when some assembly is required," according to a full-page newspaper ad.
In mid-November, Channel 10 responded to a tip from a caller that the Chula Vista Animal Shelter was in need of supplies by sending a full camera crew to the tiny shelter and making it one of the top stories on the 6:30 p.m. newscast. The station gave similar treatment to allegations that Target was selling "sexy" children's underwear. They also did a big "investigative" report on minors crossing the border to drink in Tijuana clubs.
But even during non-sweeps months, viewers aren't likely to find hard-hitting fare on the evening news, and Channel 10 is probably the worst offender. In the first week of December, Channel 10's 11:00 p.m. newscast led with four shootings or fires, all "teased" during the preceding primetime hours. A few days later, the night of the big rains, Channel 10 capped its newscasts with a report of a dancing traffic cop in Providence, Rhode Island. The next night, two stories were teased by anchor Kimberly Hunt - controversy over a homeless shelter in the center city, and "Is Fergie getting her own television show?"
Real expects this trend to continue as local news shows square off against competitors, including tabloid news shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair. As a result, he says, he wasn't surprised that veteran programmer Klotzman would be replaced with the station's marketing chief, Don Wells.
When the Channel 10 newsroom staff was told Klotzman would be replaced with Wells, "people's jaws hit the ground," according to one staffer who asked not to be identified. Prior to taking over Channel 10's marketing department two years ago, Wells, 43, did freelance TV work in the Los Angeles area, including a stint as supervising producer on Paramount Television's Leeza talk show. In the mid-1980s, Wells worked for the broadcast consultancy of Frank N. Magid Associates, whose client roster includes Channel 10. The Magid connection, observers say, only makes his elevation to Channel 10 news director more logical.
"Channel 10 has always been a real Magid station; they've always given the impression that Magid dictates what clothes the anchors wear, what their hairstyles will be, and what type of stories they're going to cover," says Kevin Brass, media critic for KPBS, the local public broadcast affiliate.
Wells concedes Channel 10 has been light on the hard-news stories but insists there is a difference between print and broadcast. "This may sound harsh, but it's sort of arrogant for [critics] or for us to say, 'Hey, we know what's important,' " he says. "The average person on the street who is trying to keep their family safe and wondering about being ripped off by car mechanics, the things they think are important might not include stadium expansion.... Some of this political stuff should be important, but the politicians have made that trivial. That's why they have trouble getting people to vote and pay attention to these things."
Real is appalled by comments such as these. "I have a lot of friends at Channel 10, and I hope they don't resent this, but it makes you long for the good old days, when television didn't know it could make money off of the news," he says. "Now, news is just as profit driven as anything on television, and it makes for kind of a disaster." Wells vows to make it right. "We have a Web site, and we will be putting more information on that Web site and directing people to it, and we do have a 24-hour channel, so we're looking at ways to meet all of those needs. If that information is important, if it's relevant to [viewers'] lives, then we need to figure out ways to make it available. You may not see it on the 6:30 news, but we'll direct you to another source."
One other "source" is San Diego News Channel 15, a collaboration between Channel 10 and Cox Cable. The 24-hour news channel went on the air September 30 and is available to Cox's 700,000 subscribers.
"It's a joint venture," Wells says, "and we have created a separate entity, with Cox, that handles ad sales." Bill Geppert, Cox's vice president and general manager, says the joint venture is "cofunded" by both parties, but he won't say whether expenses and revenue are split 50-50. "We have a formula with which it works out, and we're both pleased with it," he says. Geppert does say, however, that Cox handles all ad sales and puts all the proceeds back into the project. Thirty-second spots on "San Diego's News Channel 15" range from $50 to $200, as opposed to an average of $1500 for the regular Channel 10 newscast at 11:00 p.m. Cox sources further say that Cox has agreed to pay for any additional staffers required to put the show on the air.
At this point, extra staffing cost is negligible because News Channel 15, for the time being, consists of repeats of earlier Channel 10 newscasts. The hour-long 9:00 a.m. newscast repeats until the noon news, also an hour long, which repeats until the 5:00 p.m. newscast, and so on. And while Wells says that "over the next few years, we will be looking for ways to update stories so there's less and less rebroadcast," SDSU's Real maintains true 24-hour news coverage is the only way to go.
"CNN really found its stride with the Gulf War and with the discovery that when a major story is breaking, you can go there and stay with it continuously and people will watch it and find it useful," Real says. "That can happen locally, too, but there has to be a crew, and you have to get that out in the field. And while there is a convenience factor in rerunning the same news show at different times, it doesn't extend the range of news coverage in the city at all. It's being lazy."
Channel 10's Wells counters that a move into true 24-hour news coverage "is just not feasible from an economic standpoint." But Real insists 24-hour news coverage doesn't have to be expensive to be effective. "There are precedents," he says. "In New York City, for example, there is Cable One, an around-the-clock news channel that was built on a shoestring. It began with a one-person news crew. He went out with a camera, shot his own standup, and then came back to the studio."
Other local TV stations have also cut deals with cable providers. Channel 8 news director Steve Ramsey says his station for the last five years has provided Cox with material for a 10:00 p.m. newscast on Cox Cable Channel 4 but is ending that arrangement now to provide local news "inserts" to CNN's Headline News - something Channel 10 had been doing prior to San Diego's News Channel 15. His competitor's loss is his gain, Ramsey asserts. "The Headline News is one of those things people all over the city tune in for maybe 15 minutes, and I'd rather be there at a source you're used to seeing," Ramsey says.
Why are cablers so willing to do business with their broadcast cousins? Local TV stations, particularly network affiliates, garner the most viewers. Also, local news shows have proven a boon for cable providers who are fighting competition from direct-broadcast satellite systems, which also allow viewers to receive 100 or more channels - but whose menu doesn't include local programming.
In New York City three years ago, Charles Dolan, the owner of Cablevision Systems Corporation, turned down a $2 billion buyout offer from Time Warner. According to the New York Times, "He is building a fortress of loyal subscribers by giving them something that all the high technology in the world can't: Local news in the vast suburban ring around New York City," the Times reports. "Over the years, he has quietly assembled the biggest television news team in the metropolitan area to cover everything from drunken-driving arrests to school-board meetings in towns across Long Island and Connecticut.... News 12 has never turned a profit and Dolan doesn't expect it to anytime soon. But that's beside the point, he says; its purpose is to woo - and to keep - subscribers."