There are 8 million stories in this city of palms and blaring car alarms, and seemingly 8 million local newscasts to relate the sorry tale of each one.
Come Monday, Los Angeles gets yet another, as one of the existing newscasts undergoes a complete body, soul and face lift--a multimillion-dollar reconstruction aimed at unseating its three entrenched competitors at 10 p.m. with a newfangled and ultra-high-tech breed of local news designed to appeal to young adults.
Welcome to what KCOP Channel 13, which to date has managed barely a heartbeat in the news image and ratings race, calls "Real News."
It aims to cover all of Southern California, but some of the most novel stuff will take place right inside its cavernous two-story newsroom, replete with overhead cameras, hand-held cameras, splashy graphics and roving anchors--Ross Becker and Vicki Liviakis, who will saunter from assignment desk to reporter's office to a balcony overlooking the entire scene. During breaking news stories, the broadcast will emanate from the station's assignment desk so that viewers will be privy to the latest raw information being relayed from the field.
It's flashy, it's different and, its creators claim, it "will be the most serious newscast" in the city.
"We will do more serious news than anyone, but we will present it in a more informal and visually interesting way," said Rick Feldman, KCOP's station manager. "We are trying to break the mold by being jazzier and energetic so that we can tailor it to a younger audience that isn't being served by the traditional newscasts that you see everywhere else. But I really don't believe that a jazzier presentation has to distract from the content. Some of the best, most relevant pieces anywhere in recent years were in Vanity Fair under Tina Brown. She made it easier to read, more fun, without slacking off on the content."
It won't be easy, Feldman acknowledged, but with KCOP trailing KTLA-TV Channel 5, KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KTTV-TV Channel 11 in the 10 p.m. news ratings, "it was not an option for us to do what has always been done in news with your anchor desk and two-minute packages. There are three guys already doing it at that time, so what do we have to lose?"
Tons of money is what they have to lose. When KCOP decided to model the newscast after a similarly frenetic local news broadcast in Toronto, the station had to cough up the funds to build a news operation, basically from scratch, said Jeff Wald, news director at Channel 13 since April, 1990, following a successful stint as news boss at top-ranked independent KTLA.
Bill Frank, KCOP's general manager, said that the station spent more than $10 million to convert a puny, "shoe string" operation into a competitor. They converted a sound stage into a big news room with the latest computer system, video monitors and camera hookups so that the newscast can originate from anywhere in the building. Where once they had only two vans capable of transmitting a live signal, they now have 10, plus a helicopter equipped with several cameras, including one on the tail and another that can shoot above the blades. Where once they had no mobile satellite units, they now have a satellite truck with four-wheel drive and a portable satellite that can be towed or flown into place. And the news staff has ballooned from 30 to nearly 100.
All this hardware and personnel will produce one hour of news each night against three competitors that all, to varying degrees, have long before established a news identity. KTLA with Hal Fishman dominates the time period. Disney-owned KCAL Channel 9 has slowly built an audience and news presence with its three-hour nightly block of news. And KTTV Channel 11, while still adjusting the content and style of its own newscast, thrives on nights when Fox prime-time programming scores big.
KCOP, which consistently finishes last at 10 p.m., has almost no news image, Wald admits. And, during his nearly three years at the station, Wald has kept it that way, he said, so that viewers would see a dramatic change when all his artillery was finally in place.
Being last in the news game is an obstacle, KCOP executives concede, but they are encouraged by KCAL's success, which had maintained about the same "nothing image" in news before Disney's big investment in hardware and air time a few years back.
But why bother? Why not just leave the news game to everyone else and try to win viewers with alternative programming?
"It's very important for a broadcast station to have a local image," Frank said. "If you believe everything about cable, there could be 400 signals coming into each home, and what's going to make us different if we are just running a bunch of movies that they can get on HBO or Showtime? You have to be involved with the community. We've done it with local events like the Doo Dah Parade, the Los Angeles marathon, the Hollywood Bowl and the Clippers. The next thing to do is develop the news. It's crazy not to do it."
"And from a business standpoint, 25-30% of the advertising money in the market is earmarked for news," said Feldman, who also stated that KCOP will eventually add news programs at other times of the day to help offset the enormous start up costs. Feldman contends that most newscasts, especially his successful competitors at Channels 5 and 9, attract an audience composed primarily of people over 50. Advertisers, he said, prefer and pay a premium for younger adults--the same kind of people who watch the syndicated series "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the "Star Trek" spinoff "Deep Space Nine," and the coming "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" that KCOP airs in prime-time. Feldman believes that the new newscast will retain those under-45 viewers. He disputes the idea that many young adults simply don't want to watch local news, insisting that they have yet to be given a newscast that suits them.
But even if he is correct, one news analyst speculated that KCOP will have to double the relatively small number of young adults currently watching its news at 10 p.m. in order to make the enterprise a financial success.
"We are all in that age group and everyone we know cares deeply about where kids go to school, the air they're breathing, the water they're drinking, the roads they drive on, the price of food and gas," Feldman said. "They watch some local news now, but I really don't think they have a place to go. They can see that most of local news is phony with the intense anchor guy and all this soft junk they cover."
Wald promises that the new format will contain more news and more thoughtfulness than any other broadcast in the city. Each show will include several magazine-styled pieces that might run as long as eight minutes.
"Our show has energy and attitude, but it's going to be content driven," Wald said. "We looked at what news in this market is not giving people and that is significance. What they are getting is just a regurgitation of facts. We will work hard, especially in the longer pieces, to show them why this matters, how we got to this point, what it means to their lives.
"People are sophisticated out there about media. They may stop and take a look at us because we look fresh and different. But they will only watch if we tell them stories that mean something to them."