Look out Bryant Gumbel, Charles Gibson and Paula Zahn. Here come Barbara Beck, Carlos Amezcua and live helicopter shots of as many traffic snarls on the 405 and the four-level interchange as KTLA Channel 5 can squeeze into two morning hours.
Beginning Monday, KTLA is taking direct aim at the three networks’ morning news programs and their personalties with five people who have never been seen before on L.A. television. But in debuting the area’s first 7-9 a.m. local newscast, Channel 5 and its band of unfamiliar faces are armed with one weapon that their illustrious network counterparts can’t match: local news, local news and more local news.
While “Today’s” Willard Scott is moaning about the humidity in New York on NBC, “Good Morning America’s” Gibson is discussing the elections in India on ABC and “CBS This Morning’s” Zahn is introducing a story about the Florida stork population, “KTLA Morning News,” the station’s executives vow, will cover Southern California’s weather, sports and the goings-on in local city halls and police departments.
As Los Angeles has grown more crowded and more complicated, said Steve Bell, KTLA’s general manager, the network shows have grown less relevant to people living here. Before investing about $2.5 million a year in “KTLA Morning News,” Bell said that the station commissioned a survey that indicated that “52% of those watching one of the network morning shows would abandon that program for a local newscast.”
“Half the people watching ‘Today’ or ‘Good Morning America’ said they do so just because it’s there, not because they really like it or need it,” Bell said. “That suggested that there is a real opportunity here.”
Part of the problem with those New York-based shows is that by the time they air here they are three hours old. But the real appeal of a local newscast is that “people really like to look at themselves,” said Nicholas van Hoogstraten, executive producer of KTLA’s new program. “They like to see what they’re doing and what their neighbor is doing. When you can focus primarily on that, you’re going to connect with people. The network shows have to play nationally, and so they are generally too generic to really do that.”
This strategy has worked fairly well for independent stations in New York and Miami and to a lesser extent in Washington and San Francisco. In fact, the two-hour local newscast on WNYW, the Fox-owned station in New York, and WSVN, Fox’s Miami affiliate, have each consistently beaten “CBS This Morning” and NBC’s “Today.”
“These other programs have shown that the networks are not omnipotent anymore,” said Warren Cereghino, KTLA’s news director. “They are vulnerable. They can be attacked and in some cases knocked off. That is encouraging to us, especially since we will be facing no other local news competition.”
(Channels 2, 4, 7 and 9 all air local morning newscasts between 6 and 7, but after that the network shows feature only a 4-minute local insert each hour.)
KTLA will face other sorts of competition, however. KCAL Channel 9, KTTV Channel 11 and KCOP Channel 13 all carry children’s shows from 7 to 9--from “Bugs Bunny” to “The Flintstones” to “Ninja Turtles.”
Until now, KTLA has been getting by with reruns of “The Brady Bunch” and “Punky Brewster.” And because it does not have a profitable “kids franchise” at these hours like the other independents, KTLA does not have that much to lose in trying a newscast, said Rick Feldman, KCOP’s station manager. Since advertisers won’t pay much to reach the adult viewers of those reruns and would prefer to sink their “kids money” into the other stations’ cartoons, and since advertisers pay a premium for news audiences, Feldman said that it was “logical and intelligent” for KTLA to attempt a morning newscast.
But Feldman cautioned that, in truth, similar attempts against comparable competition have shown results only in New York. The Miami station that airs the local morning news used to be a network affiliate and as such it has always had a morning news audience. Plus, in Miami, Washington and San Francisco, there is no VHF competition besides the network affiliates, yet news programs in the latter two cities have struggled.
With “CBS This Morning” managing to reach just over 100,000 homes a day in Los Angeles, Feldman predicted that KTLA, too, will probably find it difficult to build a sizable audience, at least in the short term.
Bell conceded that the other independents--especially KCAL, with its expensive news expansion in recent years--have pushed KTLA’s news department, which has dominated the 10 p.m. news ratings for the last decade. But he said that the impetus for attempting a morning newscast is competition from cable.
Bell explained that independent stations once were able to distinguish themselves from their primary competition--the network stations--simply by airing movies and reruns such as “I Love Lucy.” But in today’s television world, myriad cable channels show movies and reruns as well.
“Cable has co-opted a lot of the sizzle that independent stations used to have,” Bell said. “So as an independent station, you have to look harder at what makes you unique and find new ways to stand out. And the best way we can do that is by covering the news.”
KTLA’s 10 p.m. news has long maintained a reputation for serious and straightforward reporting, free from the flash and frivolity that has come to characterize some local newscasts, and KTLA executives insisted that they will do nothing in the morning to sully that reputation. The station has hired 26 employees to produce the morning newscast so that the nightly news staff of about 55 will not be taxed or distracted.
Bell does not expect an overnight success. Some viewers already watching reruns on KTLA will stay for the newscast, he said, and many more, he hopes, will migrate from the network shows. The good news, he said, is that in the morning, KTLA won’t need to steal all that many to be a hit. A 2 rating in those hours--about 100,000 out of Los Angeles’ 5 million television households--is enough to break even, Bell said, while a 3--about 150,000 homes--would be “a smash.”
In any case, Bell said, “this newscast serves the community better than reruns of ‘The Brady Bunch.’ ”