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TV News Director Tuned In to Success : Jim Holtzman Has Rare Record in Business Where New Bosses Come--but Mostly Go

After 11 years guiding the Channel 8 news operation, Jim Holtzman’s list of successes and failures is long and varied. He always will be known as the Man Who Hired Ted Leitner--and then stuck with him when most San Diegans wanted the opinionated sportscaster run out of town. He also tried the ill-fated “This Day” newscast, put comedian Larry Himmel on the air and, most recently, turned the station’s weather post over to Larry Mendte.

In San Diego, where newsroom personnel come and go like minor league baseball players, Holtzman is undoubtedly the dean of local news directors. He also may be the most controversial figure in local television news.

“I don’t think there is anybody you’ll hear so many widely diverse things about,” Himmel said. “And there’s probably some truth in all of them.”

The 41-year-old Holtzman describes himself as “a very private, very average” man. But his impact on the local television news industry has been anything but average.

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In 1977, when he took command of the KFMB-TV (Channel 8) news, it was far behind rival KGTV (Channel 10) and sinking fast. Holtzman cleaned house and brought together the anchor team of Michael Tuck and Allison Ross, along with Leitner. The team became the ratings Godzilla of San Diego, squishing opponents under its toes for the next four years.

Along with success has come criticism for Holtzman. Employees often describe him as distant and uncommunicative. Through the years, several Channel 8 employees have quit to work at other stations in town. To some viewers, the Channel 8 news is superficial and lightweight, representing all that is wrong with the medium.

Holtzman has heard it all before, especially the criticism of television news.

“There is no question people expect television to be more interesting and entertaining,” he said in a recent interview. “A good list of restaurants is as

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important to them as what the state Legislature is discussing. Television news is not just journalism, it’s life.”

Holtzman’s entrance into TV news was, as is often the case, an accident. The St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri, was driving with his wife, Sarah, to Los Angeles for a vacation. While there, he expected to interview for jobs in public relations.

In order to back up his promise to pursue other possibilities, while in Tulsa, Okla., he contacted the local television stations. Two didn’t return his call; the third, the ABC affiliate, hired him as a reporter.

He spent four years in Tulsa before leaving to take the job of assistant news director with Channel 10 in San Diego. After three years there, he took the reins at Channel 8. Soon after he joined the station, Channel 10’s ratings were double those of Channel 8.

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One of the first things Holtzman did was fire the station’s outside consultants.

“I don’t believe in somebody from somewhere else telling us what San Diegans want to see,” he explained.

Though they had never met, Holtzman and Leitner had corresponded when Holtzman was in Tulsa and Leitner was exasperating viewers in Oklahoma City. In 1977, Leitner was about to get the boot in Philadelphia. Undeterred, Holtzman hired him.

A few months after he started, there was little doubt that Leitner was the most disliked broadcaster in San Diego. Channel 8 management came to Holtzman and suggested it might be best to look for a new sportscaster.

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“I said, ‘I think Ted is going to be fine. If you want to get rid of Ted, then you have to get rid of me, too,’ ” he recalled. It would not be the last time Holtzman would threaten to quit.

In November, 1979, a year after Tuck joined the team, Channel 8 went to No. 1 in the market, a position it would not relinquish for five years.

Success provided Holtzman with the type of stability and freedom most news directors see only in their dreams. Midwest Television, owner of KFMB, is a family-run company. KFMB is its largest broadcast interest.

“I deal directly with one person,” Holtzman said. “I don’t have to please a group of stockholders. I have a direct line of communication.”

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When Tuck left for Channel 10 in 1984 after prolonged contract negotiations, Channel 8’s ratings began to slip, and the station was eventually passed by Channel 10. Instead of turning conservative, Holtzman became more adventuresome. The “joy of the business” is in trying new things, he said.

“If he comes up with an idea, we’ll discuss it, and almost inevitably I’ll give him a chance to try it out,” said Robert Meyers, Channel 8’s general manager.

In 1986, after the 11 p.m. news ratings began to slip, Holtzman came up with an idea, and it turned out to be one of the biggest bombs in local TV news history.

It was called “This Day.” The idea was to devote the 11 p.m. newscast to a single theme, giving it a more stylized, sedate tone, reminiscent in some ways of NBC’s old late-night news show with Linda Ellerbee. Though some critics praised the attempt, the show didn’t click, and the traditional, happy-talk, news-sports-weather newscast was back a few months later.

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Another of Holtzman’s projects, Himmel’s five-nights-a-week, slightly bizarre “San Diego at Large,” met with better success. Though inconsistent and generally panned by critics, the show lasted 3 1/2 years, and it was unarguably a unique attempt at producing a local comedy show.

“Nobody takes more risks and nobody allows his talent more leeway to hang themselves,” Himmel said of Holtzman. “And he’ll hang with them.”

After anchor Marty Levin left in 1986 to join Channel 39, Holtzman again started to reshape the station’s on-air personnel. In a changeover reminiscent of his early days at the station, Holtzman hired two handsome young anchors to team with Ross, Greg Hurst and Stan Miller.

“I think of our newscast as being more local,” Holtzman said. “A lot of newscasts aspire to be a fancy French restaurant. We would like to be a nice, friendly diner that serves home cooking.”

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Critics contend that Channel 8 serves up mostly empty calories, glossing over important news--perhaps even more so than other TV news operations. Holtzman counters that if there is a “good, hard, visual, breaking news story,” Channel 8 will cover it as well as anybody. He acknowledges that Channel 8 doesn’t focus on politics or so-called “meeting” stories--city council news and other items generated from meetings.

Newspapers clearly advertise straight news shows such as “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,” but people still don’t watch, a clearly frustrated Holtzman pointed out.

“We are not a single source of news,” he said. “If people choose to make us that, they are clearly cheating themselves. If people need to know what is going on at a city council meeting, they should pick up a paper and read a long article by someone who specializes in that area.”

Holtzman the risk-taker re-emerged in June when he hired Mendte to be his weatherman. Mendte, with no background in weather, brings more of a David Letterman-like attitude to the job, pulling gags like calling people at home and letting people on the street predict the weather. He recently conducted a phone-in poll during the news, asking viewers whether they hated or liked him. He lost by a slight margin.

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“He’s doing exactly what I want him to do,” Holtzman said. “He’s a very creative person. I have no doubt Larry will be successful.”

Whatever critics say about Holtzman’s philosophy, it’s successful. Once again Channel 8 is battling for No. 1. The most recent Nielsen ratings showed its 5 p.m. newscast as top in the market, although Arbitron placed Channel 10 first.

And the criticism of Holtzman continues.

“Holtzman has one secret weapon, and that’s Ted Leitner,” said former Channel 8 assignment editor Gayle Falkenthal, now executive producer of the KSDO-AM (1130) news. “He has a knack for picking faces that people want to see. But I think the news is inconsequential to him.”

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Relaxing in his office, Holtzman said the switch to Hurst and Miller (and the since-departed Linda Mour) was a natural progression, not a planned youth movement. He simply liked their audition tapes. Although many perceived Levin’s departure as a move away from a serious, experienced anchor, Levin “wasn’t going to be in the station’s future” anyway, Holtzman said, a reference to Levin and Holtzman’s mutual unhappiness during Levin’s tenure with the station.

In Holtzman’s 11 years at Channel 8, dozens of reporters, photographers, writers and support personnel have worked at the station. Many have remained throughout his tenure. Others stopped only briefly, preferring to move elsewhere, even when the station was No. 1.

Holtzman is soft-spoken and reserved, apparently not given to emotional outbursts. To some of his peers, he sometimes comes across as “distant.”.

“I think his personal management style leaves a lot to be desired,” said one former employee, who asked not be named. “I don’t need a cutesy, let’s-be-friends type, but he was downright mean. If he didn’t like me, why did he hire me?”

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The former employee, who echoed the complaints of some other ex-employees, said Holtzman would leave critical notes, would rarely speak to them one-on-one and showed little interest in the support personnel.

“Sometimes he has a hard time verbally,” Himmel said. “He writes a better memo than he does talking one-on-one. People in the newsroom have a tough time reading him sometimes.”

Himmel says he will always be “fiercely loyal” to Holtzman, who gave the hard-working comedian with no TV background a regular forum on Channel 8’s newscast and then put together Himmel’s “San Diego at Large.”

“He kept the heat off of me when ‘San Diego at Large’ went on the air,” he said.

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Holtzman acknowledges that he has had his share of run-ins with employees.

“I think I learned long ago that I can’t be friends with everybody here,” he said. “At one point, I tried to be everybody’s friend, and I failed miserably. You have to maintain some distance. Some say I have maintained too much distance. But I’d rather lead by example.”

Former Channel 8 reporter Jesse Macias, who spent 14 years with the station, has filed a wrongful-termination suit against Holtzman and the station, claiming he was fired without cause. Holtzman vehemently denies Macias’ claim that he was dismissed without warning.

“This is a very personal business,” Holtzman said. “When you criticize someone, it can come across like a very personal thing. It’s almost like saying you don’t like me. It’s not always going to be real pleasant.”

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There are 85 employees in the Channel 8 newsroom; both Holtzman and Meyers say the conflicts are simply the result of trying to manage a complex and intense news operation.

“Looking at the size of the newsroom and the things he has to deal with, you would expect some criticism,” Meyers said.

In 1982, Channel 8 anchor and reporter Mac Heald was arrested on charges of child molestation. Heald had posed as a doctor in order to “examine” young children.

After the arrest, Holtzman refused to fire Heald, and he insisted that Heald be given an off-air position. At one point, Holtzman actually resigned, although he said the Heald incident was just one factor in his decision. In a nervous meeting after the arrest, Holtzman told his disgruntled staff that the newsroom was not a democracy--Heald was going to stay.

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In a well-publicized move, reporter Gene Cubbison quit Channel 8 after Holtzman’s defense of Heald, who was fired after he was sentenced to a jail term. A former newspaperman, Cubbison now acknowledges that his resignation was the accumulation of several months of frustration, although the Heald incident was a very heavy last straw.

Cubbison said he probably would handle the incident differently today. Although he spent months arguing about the Channel 8 news focus during his tenure with the station, now that he is a veteran of TV, he has patched up his differences with Holtzman.

“Since I’ve had a chance to work with other news directors, I’ve grown to appreciate how good he was,” Cubbison said. “Jim does have good news judgment. He’s really good at building and picking subjects that lend themselves to be illustrated on TV. He knows the market he has to sell to and how to keep their fannies in the seats.”

The walls of Holtzman’s office are cluttered with photos of his family--Sarah, his wife of 20 years, and their three sons, ages 10, 14 and 17. Under one picture is a framed copy of a letter Holtzman’s eldest son included in his college application. It talks about how proud he is of his father.

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Holtzman said he realigned his priorities after the furor over Heald.

“It was a very stressful time, both personally and professionally. I have my priorities now, my life and my family away from here.”

Although he periodically listens to offers of other jobs, he has yet to find one that interests him enough to leave San Diego, and he has not actively sought work elsewhere. Last year, he almost took a job in Boston, but eventually turned it down. He signed a new four-year contract with KFMB after that offer.

He acknowledges that the burning desire to succeed flames and dies down. Now, he said, it is burning brighter than ever. He has specific goals for the Channel 8 news. Primarily, he wants to see it become more “interactive,” which is why Channel 8 viewers are seeing more opinion polls and audience participation activities during newscasts.

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“I’m trying to get away from the idea of talking down to people,” he said. “I think one of the reasons Ted is so successful is he doesn’t read to them, he talks to them.”

The concept of interactive newscasts is sure to be a controversial one. Critics will certainly point to it as one more step in the trivialization of television news.

Such talk doesn’t bother Holtzman. If the concept doesn’t work, he will move on to another.

“I’m a fairly secure person in an insecure business,” he said. “I’m not afraid to fail. And I don’t have a desire to swim along in the mediocre mainstream of this business.”

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