More than 87 million homes in the United States have television sets. Each of them is on an average of more than seven hours a day, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co. For at least part of those seven hours, most of those sets are tuned to a local newscast. According to one oft-quoted study by the Roper Organization, 64% of the American public turns to TV for most of its news. Fifty-three percent rank TV news as the most believable news source.
Just how believable, how revealing, how comprehensive, how good is local television news? And how does it get from the idea stage in the morning news meeting at the TV station to the polished production that appears on the screen each evening?
Over the past several years, the KCBS-TV news operation has run through metamorphosis after metamorphosis, consistently with pallid results. Recently, the station has vowed to get back to basics. Throughout a typical day and night at CBS-owned-and-operated KCBS-TV Channel 2, photographer Rosemary Kaul and reporter Dennis McDougal roamed the newsroom, set and offices in search of answers.
Oct. 28 wasn't a remarkable day, nor was it a fast- or slow-paced day. It was just a day picked at random, and this is how it went.
A slate-gray ceiling hangs over Hollywood on the last Wednesday morning in October. Outside Columbia Square, the CBS-owned bunker at 6121 Sunset Blvd., daybreak traffic creeps through a light drizzle.
Inside the Channel 2 News control booth, a dozen TV monitors link light-bulb commercials , grinning anchor faces and colorful station-identification computer graphics over the noise of a thousand electronic circuit boards. The faces speak of a sliding stock market , a recall attempt against Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell and an overnight poison-gas scare in Lynwood. There might have been more talk about traffic, but it is time to cut to a commercial. This one is about cheese.
On a wall inside the control booth is a tattered sign. It reads, "We still treat news as if it matters."
It is a slogan from another time, when KCBS-TV first started trying to shake its dowdy, serious image and catch up to the young, happy look of its slick and successful competitors over at Channels 4 and 7.
The old set, the old anchors, even the old call letters went out the window three years ago. The station's audience had gone gray watching Channel 2 cover the news for a generation. The station was looking for a younger audience with money to spend. Yuppies with disposable incomes. Consumers deciding what kind of beer to drink or perfume to wear, not what kind of cheese to put on their bologna sandwiches.
KNXT Channel 2 changed its name and became the young, stylish, chic KCBS-TV. In its advertising slogan that year, the only real difference implied between the new KCBS and the other news operations in town was the caveat that the news was still treated as if it mattered.
There's another sign posted over the console, right next to this one. It isn't clear whether it was put up before all the changes started coming down three years ago--through four general managers, three news directors, at least a dozen producers and more news anchors than anyone cares to remember.
It is very clear, however, why no one has taken it down.
It is the familiar "We the unwilling led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing."
Last spring, the latest new general manager, new news director and new managing editor vowed that tough no-nonsense news was back at KCBS. The staff has been cautiously hopeful and occasionally pleased with the results ever since.
"It feels good here, but we're like battered children," says one newsroom veteran. "We're not yet ready to trust adults."
INSIDE THE KCBS NEWSROOM
With one tired eye on the clock and the other on the television screen halfway across the empty Channel 2 newsroom, Hosea Sanders daubs pancake makeup on his cheeks and works some of it into a crow's foot at the crinkle of his left eye. Even if he doesn't feel like it, he has to look alert for the twice-an-hour blurbs he reads during local news breaks in CBS's "This Morning" program from New York.
Midnight to dawn is the slowest period of the day inside the newsroom and the busiest on the outside, according to early-morning producer Bob Craft. It's when Third World bombings and four-alarm fires and five-car fatals occur seven days a week. It all has to be sifted, Craft says.
The sifting comes to a head at the 9 a.m. assignments meeting, when Craft joins a dozen other news executives who, through a consensus process, toss out story ideas gleaned from the wire services, radio, the morning newspapers and other sources. The ideas are written in grease pencil on a plexiglass assignment board, so they can be wiped out or modified through the day.
Then they are parceled out to 24 producers and reporters, like Sanders. Because he arrives at the station at 6:30 a.m., his is usually one of the first assignments on the board.
But before Sanders can cover the news, he must read the morning news summary at precisely 7:09, 7:24, 7:47 and 8:18. Craft watches the network program to figure exactly how many minutes and seconds Sanders gets.
"He times it down to the second and you only get, maybe, three minutes at the most," Sanders says. "In that last one (7:24 a.m.), I had to kill out sports. I sneeze and I lose a story."
From the time he begins his shift at 3 a.m., Craft reads the headlines on two wire services and keeps the radio tuned to KCBS's sister radio station, all-news KNX. He scans the newspapers for scandals and murders. This day, Craft spots "Terror on the Prowl" on the front page of the Daily News. It is a headline over a photo of two Rottweiler dogs strolling down an Encino sidewalk, a squad car following close behind. Sanders winds up with the assignment, titled "Mad Dogs," following his early-morning anchor duties.
"Television is not a news-gathering medium. It can't be," says a CBS producer who shares other CBS employees' occupational paranoia about talking on the record about his employer. "We just don't have the bodies to cover every city council meeting and every school board. We can't go to every courthouse and look up every case the way a newspaper can." Lately, there have been even fewer bodies, he says. Within the past two years, the CBS network has laid off more than 400 employees. Technology has made some jobs obsolete. A slimmer bottom line, brought on by the success of cable and pay TV, has made it economically wise to trim other jobs. And managers who care as much about profits as they do about quality news operations are now firmly in control of all three major networks.
"So television news falls back on what it does best: news dissemination. If it's done right, every story is like a small motion picture. It's shot, edited, mixed, recut. . . ." the producer's voice falls away.
"Let me tell you two stories that sum up everything that's wrong with TV news," he returns. "Guy complaining about his station gets asked: 'If TV news is so bad, why are you in it?' He answers: 'I got in it because somebody told me a picture's worth a thousand words. What I didn't know until I was in TV news was nobody in TV knows a thousand words.' "
The other story is about time, says the producer. There is precious little of it to tell a story on TV. Two minutes for a lengthy piece. One minute, even as little as 30 seconds, for lesser stories.
"Moses brings the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai and Dan Rather leads with it. His story goes like this: 'Topping off tonight's news, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments today, the three most important of which are . . . . ' "
NEWS DIRECTOR ERIK SORENSON'S OFFICE
"Sanders is going to the kennels," says assignments editor Sylvia Teague.
"And he's going to go around the neighborhood and talk to people," says managing editor Michael Singer. "They're heading for some guy's house in Encino right now."
After the morning meeting in which the station's 20 on-air reporters get their assignments, the half a dozen producers and editors who decide what gets on the air meet in Erik Sorenson's office. The round table where they sit and nibble crackers or saltwater taffy faces a huge picture window that overlooks the gymnasium-sized newsroom--a former Bank of America.
When executives from CBS headquarters in New York come to town, Sorenson's round table is about as close as they come to mingling with the KCBS troops. During the past two years, these visits have become more frequent and, if possible, more impersonal, according to some staff members. They want news treated as if it matters, but at a minimal cost.
Teague proceeds down her list of stories. "There's four ex-CIA agents, forming some sort of a campaign to try to prevent further abuses," she tells her fellow decision-makers.
"That's a 'natsot,' " says Singer, using the shorthand slang for footage that a camera crew shoots without having a reporter along to ask questions. The footage will be boiled down to 10 or 15 seconds of "natural sound on tape" that will get a voice-over explanation on the 6 p.m. newscast from Terry Murphy.
Singer is impatient. He wants to get to the main event.
"And Tom Vacar will do 'Technology Transfers,' " Teague continues. "Should be a fairly interesting story out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They're displaying all of these down-to-earth applications of space technology, like sunglasses." Not just any sunglasses, she adds. They are Space Age sunglasses that cut out harmful ultraviolet light."
"But are they bulletproof?" deadpans producer Dan Tobias.
"For you, they're bulletproof," Teague says.
"The idea is they're going to show off all these great products, thereby making it clear that we should continue to pump money into the space program because we can get great sunglasses and. . . . "
"And our own Stinger missiles," says producer Robin Anderson.
Singer rubs his hands together and leans on his elbows. A missile story, in fact, is the hard-news piece de resistance : Channel 2 has found a missing star witness in a congressional investigation of an ongoing cost-overrun scandal involving the MX missile and its manufacturer, Northrop Corp.
"This guy says that the guidance systems in MX missiles that were in the ground, ready to shoot, were totally screwed up and that the Northrop people knew about it and covered it up the last five years, and he has the documents to prove it," Singer says. He rocks back and forth in his seat, a 47-year-old hyperkinetic kid with gray at his temples and glee in his eyes.
"This is like the culmination of all these stories that Chris Blatchford has been doing! The FBI is looking for this guy and we've got an exclusive interview on Sunday! And we beat the L.A. Times! They have it on the front page this morning, but we had it on the 11 (p.m. newscast) last night!"
Singer is excited. "60 Minutes" would be doing the Northrop story on the upcoming Sunday edition. KCBS could cash in on the program's high viewership by leading the Sunday newscast that precedes "60 Minutes" with even more of Blatchford's exclusive reports on the unfolding scandal.
Another producer goes on to the next story.
"There's going to be some Salvadoran protesters in front of the Salvadoran Embassy," he begins.
"I think the Times didn't credit us with breaking the MX story last night," Singer grumbles. Then he sits silently, only occasionally offering a short comment about an assignment.
Sorenson winds things up with praise for all of the breaking stories that emphasize the new hard-news image at Channel 2, but he notes that KABC got an interview the previous day that KCBS should have gotten.
"We tried," Singer says. "We got a name and an address and called, but there was nobody home."
Apparently there was, Sorenson says. KABC got the interview.
But they didn't have Northrop, says Singer.
Sorenson goes on to assignments for Ruth Ashton Taylor and school test scores, Patty Ecker and her Wednesday's Child (since changed to Sunday's Child) feature, Jim Forbes and the RTD, Hosea Sanders and the Rottweilers, Bill Stout.
"Is Stout still out?" asks a producer.
Yes, flu or something. The talk turns to the stock market and young speculators who lost everything in the crash.
"It really is gambling," Sorenson says. "Buying on margin and betting against the future. You can use your MasterCard now in Vegas. It's really the same thing."
Singer and producer Danny Tobias propose putting Pat O'Brien on it, maybe interspersing Jimmy the Greek's views with those of stockbrokers who are now advertising to lure speculators back into the market.
As the meeting ends and everyone shuffles out, Robin Anderson snaps her fingers and turns on Sorenson:
"I heard you on the radio this morning!" she says. "I got in my car and they said, 'Now a word from Channel 2 News,' and then I hear: 'Hi. I'm Erik Sorenson.' " She slams both both hands against the side of her head, scrunches up her eyes and screams: "And I said 'AAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!'!"
"Hi. I'm Erik Sorenson, news director at Channel 2. And I'm about to do something that isn't very comfortable for me: a commercial.
"I'm about to ask you to try our news. Now, I know that many of you used to watch the Channel 2 News but have recently switched to Channel 4 or Channel 7. You've switched because over the past couple of years, we've tried some things you didn't like.
"Well, I want you to know the experiments are over, and we're back on track. We've returned to our traditional straightforward style. We've stopped changing our news team every other week. We've brought back the Channel 2 investigations and we've cut out the fluff.
"Now, here's the uncomfortable part. I'm not a salesman, but I want to sell you on trying our news again. I want you to watch us once. Once a week. Or even once in a while. I think you'll see that serious, no-nonsense news is back on television again in Southern California."
INSIDE THE NEWSROOM
Sorenson is 32 years old. He wears suspenders, loud argyles and outrageous ties and only recently gave up his addiction to cigars in favor of aerobics and light lunches.
There are still newsroom grudges that a wunderkind from the Midwest could come in and take control of the KCBS news operation. There is also still a simmering resentment over Sorenson's role in creating the disastrous "news wheel" format the year before, 20-minute theme segments on "Health," "Family," "California Living," and so on, spread out over two hours of evening news time with headlines offered up a few times each hour.
"It was sort of fast-food news," says one KCBS news writer.
It lasted two days short of a month before the whole idea was scrapped. Since then, Sorenson has done his best to distance himself from the news wheel and emphasize his experience as a tough, award-winning news executive.
In contrast to the tall, brash, relaxed image that Sorenson projects, managing editor Singer is conservative, tense and intense, often to the point of abrasiveness.
At his desk in the center of the newsroom, Singer chews Wrigley's Doublemint and switches a monitor from car commercials to soap operas and back again until he finds a closed-circuit broadcast of CBS News footage.
He swigs mineral water from the bottle and arbitrates minor disputes between technicians and producers. He can't stop to eat while there are missing MX witnesses or roving Rottweilers or ultraviolet sunglasses to be captured on camera and brought home to Columbia Square.
As managing editor, Singer calls the shots. He hands out the assignments, decides if and when to wipe a story off the plexiglass assignment board and settles disputes between producers and reporters over how a news segment is edited. He can and does smile, but he does not suffer fools very well. A poster taped to the side of his monitor reads, "976-GEEK--Talk all you want. Nobody's listening."
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY, PASADENA
"The danger of something like this is--and I've seen a couple of reporters do this already--just doing a stand-up next to these damn sunglasses," Tom Vacar says.
He shows his impatience with what he calls "cheap-shot journalism" by tugging at the knot on his tie as he speaks. He resembles a younger, trimmer Rodney Dangerfield.
A news crew from Channel 4 has just finished a stand-up next to a display of Space Age sunglasses--the kind Vacar was sent to JPL's Von Karman Auditorium to film for the Channel 2 News at 5 p.m.
"That's the easy way to trivialize something like this," he says. "For years people thought what came out of the space program was Teflon pans. What really came out of the space program was consumer electronics. You know, all those Walkmen and TV sets that cost 300 bucks where they used to cost $1,000?"
Vacar, an attorney turned consumer-affairs reporter, is precisely the kind of journalist that NASA wants at events like the Technology Spinoff Showcase. The ultraviolet sunglasses are in the NASA press release as a lure, but once the reporter shows up with a camera crew, it is hoped he can be persuaded to take a closer look at particle-detection equipment or genetic-screening systems--the kind of thing that rarely gets on the nightly news because it is too complicated, too esoteric, too dull.
Channel 7 didn't even send a crew.
As Kent Shocknek and the Channel 4 crew leave, Vacar begins working the tie again. "See this over here? This green thing? That's new battery technology. This device could not exist without the space program! What these guys are going to do is try to make a lightweight battery that can power cars and things. That's going to revolutionize things!"
When KNBC's Shocknek broadcasts his report at 5:30, the breezy, entertaining story revolves around NASA's ultraviolet sunglasses.
When Vacar's airs a short time later, his talk centers on high-resolution video transmissions, Space Age air-pollution particulate-control monitors and computer-generated prototype models. It is twice as long and informative as Shocknek's. But the opening shot is still a table loaded with ultraviolet sunglasses.
INSIDE COLUMBIA SQUARE
With a cigarette in one hand and an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on the edge of his desk for effect, investigative reporter Ross Becker is a version of Arnie Becker, with the sandy blond hair and China-blue eyes of the "L.A. Law" character.
"It's been a very interesting seven years," he says of his KCBS tenure. "Six general managers and five news directors, if you count Erik Sorenson twice."
His point is well taken. Weatherman Cliff Morrison, returning to work after taking a few days off, once told a fellow employee to take her problems to Frank Gardner's office until he was reminded that Gardner was two general managers ago. It took a couple more embarrassing moments before he could remember that the present general manager is Bob Hyland, who's made Becker's investigative unit a key part of his plan to improve the ratings.
Though there is plenty of grumbling down in the newsroom about Becker's current job, Becker himself is unconcerned, even content--if that's possible for the new Channel 2's hard-news standard-bearer.
The miniature golf putting green outside his door is misleading, Becker insists. He refuses to have his picture taken holding a golf club for fear people will get the wrong idea about what it is he does. He is already weary of the carping he must suffer at the hands of his peers, who see him as a prima donna, complaining that he doesn't work hard enough. Becker and his producer, Don Ray, insist they are indeed going after the riffraff, mobsters and phonies.
"To my knowledge, we have the only full-time investigative unit in Southern California," Michael Singer says .
Becker's investigation this week is a crowd-pleaser. On camera, he manages to skewer the operator of a Westside fat farm that used electric shock as a method of forcing muscles to involuntarily exercise. He unmasks the high-priced scheme as virtually useless in reducing fat and tells the Channel 2 audience that the fat-farm operators were not licensed by the state to run such a clinic.
Though the story may not win him an Emmy for sending corrupt politicians or Mafia dons to jail, it is great theater. Becker revels in the praise heaped on him in the newsroom. The same people who often grumble about the prima donnas on the second floor congratulate Becker for creating some terrific confrontational television.
Now, sitting in his office, Becker savors his first on-camera interview with ZZZZ-Best Carpet Cleaning king Barry Minkow and the first reports of the Aryan Nations connection with the shooting of Denver talk-show host Allen Berg. Those are the kinds of stories that really count. Those are the kinds of stories, he says, that his unit will do again.
Outside Becker's door, reporters, producers and editors are running through the results of the day's assignments. At least one hasn't turned out as planned: At the West Valley Animal Shelter, Hosea Sanders and his news crew have discovered that the "mad dog" Rottweilers they'd gone to film had become about as threatening as a pair of gerbils. Videotape of the dog story will have to be scuttled, and for the 5 p.m. newscast, the Daily News' front-page photo will be flashed on the screen for an illustration. Sanders will fill out the report with interviews of Encino residents talking about how frightening the dogs were when they roamed the neighborhood. He'll also note with interest that the dog story leads Channel 7's 4 p.m. newscast.
"I was here the day Michael Jackson's hair caught fire," Tom Larson is saying. Larson helps Channel 2 get a jump on the news by monitoring the shortwave bands used by law-enforcement and fire officials.
On the walls of Room 114 are renderings of churches that Larson, a part-time minister, would like to build someday. Back before CBS Inc. became cost-conscious, Larson helped talk management into investing several hundred thousand dollars in a console that contains more monitors of more shortwave bands than any other civilian has access to in Los Angeles County, he says proudly. And it enables him to get the jump on everybody.
"The day Jerry Dunphy was shot, I knew about it a minute or two after it happened. That was how we were able to scoop Channel 7 on their own anchorman getting shot!" Larson says. "I am Channel 2's secret weapon."
"We're Channel 2's secret weapon," contends librarian Lorraine Hillman. None of the other Los Angeles stations has as extensive a research operation as Channel 2, she boasts. Hillman keeps a special file for Bill Stout, featuring clippings about the most outrageous and/or stupid behavior of public figures from the previous month. At the end of each month, Stout uses it as the basis of his "Turkey of the Month" awards during his commentary segment on the evening newscast. This month's candidates include a story about 14 people accused of selling body parts of birds on the endangered species list and another on a man who helped rescue Jessica McClure from a well in Midland, Tex., and then was fired for taking time off to perform the rescue.
INSIDE COLUMBIA SQUARE
In front of weatherman Kevin O'Connell is a computer screen that generates satellite photos, colorful temperature maps, rainfall charts--like the USA Today weather map in three televised dimensions.
Though regular news stories are still typed out by hand at KCBS, weather news technology is in its fourth or fifth generation, according to O'Connell. Viewers at home don't know it, but O'Connell and his fellow TV weather forecasters point at nothing when they motion toward their TV weather maps. In fact, they are in front of blank, solid-blue panels while a computerized map overlay is being projected on the TV screen at home but not on the panel in the studio.
When O'Connell is pointing to a storm front over Elko, Nev., or a hurricane in Baton Rouge, La., in fact he is faking it, coordinating his index finger with the computer overlay image that he is watching in a monitor near his feet. Computer graphics aren't advanced enough to be projected on a big screen where weather reporters can actually point to the pictures they are describing to the audience.
Even so, the graphics are expensive. The computer software O'Connell is previewing today is called the Kouvaras: a customized, high-resolution animated program that cost KCBS more than $70,000.
O'Connell saw Kouvaras demonstrated in the exhibit hall of a recent convention of the National Assn. of Broadcasters ("I call it the NAB Toy Department," he says). Though Channel 2's two chief competitors get along without it, O'Connell had to have it, and he tends to get what he wants.
Through Hollywood agents, anchors and on-air reporters negotiate their own contracts, often earning salaries of $500,000 a year or more. KABC's Paul Moyers recently became Southern California's first $1-million anchor when his agent, Ed Hookstratten, set up a bidding war between KCBS and KABC. The big salaries are a sore point among staff members who must work with the on-air personalities.
"I heard on the radio this morning that the new (Tournament of Roses) Queen wants to be a news anchor when she graduates from college," says a Channel 2 assignment editor. "She doesn't want to be a journalist. She wants to be an anchor. What does that tell you?"
CHANNEL 2 NEWS SET & CONTROL BOOTH
Tritia Toyota goes over her notes with one eye and checks out her blusher in the makeup-room mirror with the other.
Chris Conangla settles into his chair and waits.
Inside the video-editing rooms just off the newsroom, technicians and producers frantically dub and erase and cut and recast tape that will be on the air in a matter of moments. But the tensest spot in the Sunset Boulevard headquarters of KCBS-TV is a tight, hot, stuffy box on the second story, above a bank of computers, transformers and electronic-storage equipment.
"There are always too many stories and not enough time," says "7 O'Clock Report" director Joe Terry before he enters the control booth.
His toes twitch inside the ends of his Reeboks when he finally hunches over the knobs and buttons and bulbs of the control-booth console.
He appears to be humming anxiously to himself, but no noise passes his lips. His eyes flick back and forth, between the bank of color-TV monitors and his stopwatch. His index finger taps a pair of sunglasses sitting next to the console. There is no detectable panic yet; just the clear-headed anxiety of one who knows everything's destined to go in the toilet any second now.
For 20 minutes of news, weather and features, things go fine. Then the fear sets in.
"Five minutes, 10 seconds," Terry says, his shoes finally showing a little movement as his knees tense and bounce. "It's gonna be tight. Lampley's still gotta go on."
Producer Dan Tobias sits stock-still in the chair behind his director, but he silently shares Terry's anxiety. When a commercial comes up on the screen, Tobias growls into a microphone attached to the ear of his stage director, Victor Webb. Downstairs and half a city block away, Webb is calling the shots on the set where anchors Toyota and Conangla read off the last bits of news before sportscaster Jim Lampley winds up the newscast.
"If Tritia doesn't read fast, would you strangle her?" Tobias says calmly into Webb's microphone. "Or just strangle her, whether she reads fast or not."
"Three minutes 20," says Terry, feet doing a mashed-potato dance beneath the console.
Tobias also starts to fidget.
"Victor, tell Lampley to read fast!" he snaps into the mike.
On the monitors, Toyota's lead-in patter to Lampley's final sports segment is smooth and conversational, Southern California casual. Never mind that the taunts, threats and curses coming through her earpiece could incite Shirley Temple to violence.
"Tritia, somebody's gonna wind up crying, and it's gonna be you!" Tobias snarls at her unflappable image on the unseeing, unhearing TV monitors.
"Two minutes," Terry says to his stopwatch, his toes tapping like Fred Astaire's.
"Tight, Lamp! Tight!" Tobias hollers at the monitors as Toyota's cool smile gives way to Lampley's grin.
The 38-year-old defector from ABC Sports, who signed on with KCBS in September for a reported $700,000 a year, fixes his eyes on the camera and never blinks. But his mile-a-minute patter about the Rams' Eric Dickerson and hockey scores and Larry Holmes' next title bout is heard only by those wearing earphones and headsets. Lampley smiles as he races to get in the last word before sign-off.
"Twenty seconds," says Terry.
" Tiiiiight!" says Tobias.
"Ten!" answers Terry.
Lampley flashes another grin and mouths the words, "That's it for the '7 O'Clock Report' " all along the bottom tier of the bank of monitors. Toyota and Conangla barely get to wave good night before, a split second later, the CBS eye flashes over the screen.
Joe Terry puts his watch down and relaxes his dancing feet. The technicians on either side of him stand and stretch.
"We got it all in," Tobias sighs. "Let's go get a beer."
AROUND 2 COLUMBIA SQUARE
It rains off and on all day long Oct. 28, and into the night, just as Kevin O'Connell predicted it would.
Back in the newsroom, the report of a missing boy is turning into the top candidate for lead story on the 11 p.m. news.
Someone has found a photo of CBS board chairman Laurence Tisch, drawn on a pair of fangs and pinned it to a bulletin board.
Murphy and Schubeck and O'Connell breeze through the 11 p.m. There is no rush to cram it all in as there had been at 7 p.m. There is even time for some improvised repartee.
Shortly after 11:30 sign-off, a call comes into the newsroom. Bill Stout has had a heart attack. It isn't devastating. He will survive. But there will be no Turkey of the Month commentary for October. Erik Sorenson and a handful of late-night regulars gather near Stout's desk to discuss the news. He will be back, they tell each other. He'll be OK.
One by one, the reporters and anchors, editors and producers, writers and technicians and directors leave the flat, fluorescent glare of the newsroom.
Outside, the rain is coming down again.
It is the first real rain of the season. If it keeps up all night long, there could be mudslides and flooding and traffic snarls by dawn. The weather could wind up being the lead story of the day.
Along Sunset Boulevard, traffic creeps through the downpour. People pulling out of the parking lot just before midnight at Columbia Square keep their fingers crossed all the way home that the rain will hold out until morning.
(The rain did hold out. The Foothill Freeway closed down for a time, and the story led the newscasts of all three network stations in Los Angeles on Thursday, Oct. 29. Stout's heart attack was a footnote on that evening's KCBS newscasts.)