KCBS ZEROING IN ON HARD NEWS : Robert Hyland III, Channel 2's New General Manager, Vows to Bring Back Golden Era of No-Holds-Barred, Nuts-and-Bolts Stories

Times Staff Writer

In his first month as general manager at ratings-beleaguered KCBS-TV, Robert Hyland dumped the 7 p.m. newscast, replaced it with "The People's Court" and rehired one of the architects of last October's disastrous "news wheel" format--a format that lasted exactly three weeks.

But Hyland maintains that he is committed to bringing back the KCBS golden era of tough, no-holds-barred, nuts-and-bolts hard news.

Witness, he says, last month's local Nielsen sweeps derby.

Hyland was instrumental in yanking a pair of series from the 6 p.m. newscasts. One was entitled "Dodger Wives." The other was "Women Who Love Priests."

Without going into details, Hyland said neither he nor his newly-rehired news director, Erik Sorenson, saw series about major-league mates or clerical crushes as broadcast journalism's finest hour.

This week, Hyland and Sorenson are announcing the formation of a new four-member "Channel 2 Investigations" team, headed by KCBS veteran Ross Becker. Beginning in July, they vow, the team will begin breaking new stories instead of rehashing articles from the morning newspaper.

"I think KNBC and KABC do present hard news, but they also do things that fall into the soft side--I suppose for a balance effect," Hyland says. "Not that we, too, won't do soft features from time to time. But I think the image for us will be investigative reporting."

KCBS had two producers and a full-time reporter on investigative assignments in Los Angeles a year before Hyland showed up here, but Becker's team will redouble those efforts, according to Hyland.

Many among the newsroom staff are understandably skeptical about Hyland's high hopes. They have survived poor ratings, a seven-week Writers Guild strike and three different changes in general managers and news directors in the past nine months.

"So far, he's been real low-key," said one on-air personality who requested anonymity. "If his car weren't parked in (former general manager Tom) Van Amburg's old slot, you wouldn't even know he was here."

Newsroom veterans question the wisdom of rehiring Sorenson, who was responsible with then general manager Frank Gardner for implementing the station's disastrous "news wheel" format last fall. The news wheel--a revolutionary concept in local news that divided the evening newscasts into thematic, 20-minute bites--was on the air on Sept. 15 and off the air by the first week in October. Gardner was forced to resign and Sorenson followed a few days later.

Nevertheless, Hyland, new to Los Angeles and to television, turned to Sorenson for his experience in dealing with Southern California broadcast journalism and the KCBS staff.

"Irrespective of what went on with the news wheel concept, it was part of his broadcast life," Hyland philosophized. "Even though it was a failure in many ways, it was also a success in a way. He cared an awful lot about it and he learned what was good about it and what was bad about it. I think that he is by far the best person to take this station from where it is right now to a higher level."

Hyland is the son of a CBS legend. His father, Robert Hyland II, has managed the CBS-owned-and-operated broadcast outlets in St. Louis, Mo., for more than 30 years. KMOX-AM is often cited in trade publications as the best all-talk station in the country. The CBS-owned AM, FM and TV stations that his 68-year-old father has managed (CBS has sold the TV station) earn 50 cents of every broadcast advertising dollar spent in St. Louis, according to Hyland.

"The most competitive person in the world is my father," he says. "He's the kind of guy who always feels that he's going to be knocked over by the competition, so he's always thinking ahead about ways to destroy the competition."

He fights comparisons to his father, but the shared competitive characteristics of the Hyland dynasty are indelible.

Robert Hyland III tried avoiding head-on family competition and took his first job out of college as a salesman with ABC-owned and operated radio station KGO-AM in San Francisco.

"I fought long and hard to not come to CBS," he said. Nonetheless, he joined the "family" firm in 1968.

Like his father, most of his CBS career was in radio, not television. In 1979, he became his father's equal when he took over management of CBS' WCBS-AM in New York. In 1980 he was promoted once again to head all CBS-owned-and-operated FM stations, and thus became his father's boss.

He also helped mastermind a format switch for CBS-FM stations across the country that called for uniform Top 40 "hit radio" style, including in Los Angeles, where KNX-FM became KKHR-FM from 1983 through 1985.

"We had planned to make that change long before KIIS-FM ever got hot here," said the 42-year-old executive. "But we didn't--as I look back--move as quickly as we should have. And in the meantime KIIS came in here and figured that we were going to change KNX-FM and really cranked up KIIS-FM and did a helluva job."

Though its ratings were good, KKHR was never able to sell itself as anything more than a teen station, Hyland said. As a result, the station returned to a soft rock adult format last year and has dropped down in the ratings ever since. It remains one of the few resounding disappointments in a career that has little tolerance for failure.

Tom Van Amburg, Hyland's predecessor as general manager at KCBS-TV, resigned April 22 after only seven months on the job. At the time, CBS Television Stations President Eric Ober cited philosophical differences as the reason for Van Amburg's resignation.

According to both Hyland and Sorenson, the reason for Sorenson's departure was Van Amburg, who previously had been general manager of rival KABC-TV Channel 7. Sorenson left KCBS four days after Van Amburg arrived.

"I was concerned about the kind of culture that Tom came from: the culture of doing anything for ratings," Sorenson said. "I felt uncomfortable that this station might do anything for ratings, so we agreed on a resignation."

Van Amburg, who said he has never had an "anything-for-ratings" philosophy, remembers Sorenson's departure somewhat differently.

"We never discussed anything about ratings or material," Van Amburg said. "I asked Erik one question: 'How committed to the news wheel are you?' And he said 'totally,' and that his credibility hinged on its existence.

"Based on that, he had to leave because there was no news wheel projected for the station at that time."

During the seven months Sorenson was absent from KCBS, news decisions were being made in Van Amburg's office, not in the newsroom, according to Sorenson and Hyland. Both men describe the newsroom from October, 1986, through April this year as angry, directionless and pandering to the lowest values of the viewing public.

"That's an example of being misinformed," Van Amburg responded. "No series has ever been created outside the news department. Ideas might emanate from anywhere, but the series originate with the news department."

Pointing out that there are disgruntled dissidents in any newsroom, Van Amburg said that he applied a two-part question to all KCBS news efforts: How does the subject matter affect the viewer's quality of life and is it interesting television?

"You try to do something and hope that it delivers, but I have never in my broadcast career done anything for ratings," Van Amburg said.

Nevertheless, Sorenson maintains that the station strayed too often from the hard-news path and pursued the kind of story that Sorenson says the "new" KCBS would never touch.

Such as?

"Such as the five best bathing suits in Los Angeles. Such as lesbian nuns. Such as Dodger wives. Such as women who love priests," Sorenson said.

Sorenson and Hyland are reluctant to lay the blame on any one individual, but they decided to wipe the slate clean after Van Amburg left. One of the first things Sorenson did after he returned to KCBS three weeks ago was to fire four senior producers that he himself had hired before he left last October.

"It wasn't their fault. You can only order your troops to go left, then right, then left, then right so many times before you lose credibility with them," Sorenson said. He himself had lost credibility after the news wheel and had to be gone for a while before he could return "cleansed," he said.

Sorenson came to KCBS in May, 1984--the last month that Channel 2's 4-to-7 p.m. news block was No. 1 in Los Angeles.

To hear him tell it, the 31-year-old Wunderkind has always been a hard-news aficionado and not a tofu-and-bikini sensationalist. During four years of news production at CBS-owned WBBM-TV in Chicago, he carved out a reputation as a tough journalist and something of a muckraker.

But he arrived in Los Angeles when the KCBS motto was "We still treat news as if it matters," and the irony of that promotion line has plagued him ever since. While news did matter, ratings mattered more, according to Sorenson.

By the time the KCBS motto was switched to "the next generation of local news" and the laid-back set of the news wheel was introduced, Sorenson had already survived two general managers and the first round of CBS Inc.'s well-publicized cost cuts.

He did not survive the news wheel, but he still defends it.

"We broke stories. We were credible. We were not sensationalistic," he said. "There's totally revisionist history now: 'It was a disaster! It was a disaster!' But we were never T-and-A. We were very CBS."

From KTTV Channel 11, where he worked as news director for several months following his resignation from KCBS, Sorenson said he watched KCBS crumble even more. Within a week of Sorenson's reappointment as KCBS news director last month, he called a staff meeting to proclaim that the newsroom had been "overmanaged" for several years.

It is one of the few points where Sorenson and Van Amburg can agree.

Van Amburg, who has returned to independent television production, said that KCBS has been overmanaged from CBS Inc. headquarters in New York for a decade and that the station has suffered from its lack of autonomy.

He characterized his own short tenure as something of a KCBS fluke. He said that he did not stand in awe of such CBS legends as Edward R. Murrow and "the Golden Era of TV News" that may or may not have existed. He was allowed to bring his own instincts as a veteran Los Angeles broadcaster into play without having to answer regularly to his corporate bosses in New York.

Far from turning KCBS into a clone of KABC, which he managed for several years, Van Amburg said he believes he might have been able to stabilize the station and give it a fresh start. Whatever he did during his freewheeling stewardship at KCBS was better than the news wheel, he maintains.

After going through 10 general managers and 10 news directors in the past 10 years, KCBS is trying to stabilize, Hyland said.

"I guess I get upset when I hear people say things like, 'Gee whiz, there goes another manager out there (to Los Angeles) and he'll be gone in two months or six months or a year,' " Hyland said with thinly disguised irritation. "I can't really speak for what happened here last year because I wasn't a part of it. A lot of people have come and gone. I mean, that particular group of people at CBS headquarters in New York who were even responsible for it (the news wheel) are no longer even in New York.

"It's been a mixed bag in terms of morale. There's been no consistency here: You change general managers, you change people, you do this for six months and then you do something else for six months. We're going to stay with this thing," he vowed. "We know it's going to be a slow-growth process. It's going to take a long time, but we're committed, irrespective of what may happen from (ratings) book to book."

Hyland's speech is peppered with optimistic corporate euphemisms that KCBS veterans translate into layman's terms with some relish.

Hyland says the U.S. television market has "matured." Translation: The pre-cable and pre-videocassette recorder gravy days are over for pioneer VHF stations such as KCBS. They now have to scrounge for every advertising dollar and every audience rating point in a market that is rife with dozens of alternative choices for viewers.

Hyland calls KCBS' renewed emphasis on hard news "a new window of opportunity for the viewer." Translation: KCBS hopes to climb out of its dismal third-place Nielsen showing in Los Angeles by offering its brand of hard news instead of the softer stuff that he feels KCBS has served up along with its rivals in recent years.

But there's one CBS Inc. corporate message, straight out of New York, that Hyland paraphrases often--and it requires no translation.

His tidy, spartan desk has one telling adornment in a New Yorker magazine-type cartoon that depicts a CBS "eye" staring down on a nervous executive. He hid it in his desk drawer two weeks ago when CBS Inc. President Laurence A. Tisch's son, Andrew, stopped by for a visit.

"He was carrying Larry's message loud and clear here: Make more money," Hyland said.

If all goes according to Hyland's plan, Southern Californians should be tuning increasingly to KCBS, ratings should go up and ad revenue should begin flowing anew.

"The corporation expects profits to go up and up and up," he sighed. "That's its obligation to its shareholders. And with the business on the advertising revenue side not growing at the same incremental increases as the profits should be going up, you have to make sure that your costs are held tightly in line, that you protect the bottom line.

Translation: As long as "The People's Court" keeps its ratings up, the chances of a 7 p.m. local newscast on KCBS are zero . . . but "Women Who Love Priests" won't be airing any time soon either.

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