It's 7 a.m., and the battle for the hearts, minds and funnybones of Los Angeles viewers is underway. At stake are big bucks and big yuks.
It was two years ago that the honking, somersaulting, fright-wigged, floppy-shoed wiseacres of "The KTLA Morning News" made their debut and almost immediately began clobbering the long-ensconced ABC, NBC and CBS morning shows in the local ratings. And now comes another two-hour news-and-comedy show, KTTV-TV Channel 11's "Good Day, L.A.," to challenge KTLA's kidders.
Well, based on the first two episodes, the challenge is yet to be made.
With four of them bunched together behind a single desk like a modified Last Supper, the premiering regulars on "Good Day, L.A." probably made history Monday by being the first cast of a news program to be introduced as "a group of fun people."
Anchors Mark Thompson (who also does the weather), Susan Lichtman and Antonio Mora, entertainment reporter Dagny Hultgreen and traffic reporter Suzanne Dunn were filling big shoes, for "Good Day, L.A." was replacing "Woody Woodpecker" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks"--just as its lead-in, the equally new KTTV news at 6 a.m., was ousting "Popeye & Friends." Meanwhile, KTLA-TV Channel 5's own new 6 a.m. news--it wasn't taking the Channel 11 competition lightly--was supplanting Pat Robertson's paid religious series, "The 700 Club."
"Good Day, L.A." scriptures call for a smattering of hard news and light features in a cocoon of funny business. On Monday, that included having comic Rip Taylor do shtick from the beach. Uh huh .
Love it or leave it, the emergence of "The KTLA Morning News" was strikingly fresh and different for L.A. So far, "Good Day, L.A." is an echo, vowing to be different while copying "The KTLA Morning News," even having anchors refer to newspaper stories and headlines as Carlos Amezcua and Barbara Beck do on the older, infinitely cleverer and funnier Channel 5 program.
It was like watching Mr. Ed trying to be David Letterman.
When a "Good Day, L.A." anchor says something, the other anchors automatically become a laugh track. Thompson: "Speaking of no credibility. . . ." Lichtman: "Ha ha ha." Mora: "Ha ha ha." Hultgreen: "Ha ha ha."
Lichtman ad-libs well and does a decent interview, but the booming Thompson (who was weathercaster for Channel 11's evening news) is clearly anchor No. 1 in this cast, and Mora, who frequently glazes over like someone who hasn't the foggiest, is clearly the junior partner here.
Although Thompson is very quick, a little goes a long way. On Monday, he was even hammier than the massive hog he "interviewed."
The KTLA morning news bunch turned Thompson's appearance with the pig into a running joke Tuesday. Like, sure, they're too dignified for such a stunt themselves, right? In fact, as Lichtman was reporting the death of Pat Nixon at the top of Tuesday's "Good Day, L.A.," what was weathercaster Mark Kriski doing on "The KTLA Morning News"? Reviewing his previous day's televised escapade with bathing-suit-clad lovelies in the waters off Redondo Beach. So much for the charge that "The KTLA Morning News" is studio bound and doesn't get out and mingle.
If anyone in its cast is a metaphor for the early bungling of "Good Day, L.A.," it's Dunn, who made her debut on an airstrip Monday, fretting to her colleagues in the studio ("Hey, you guys, you're not gonna believe me . . .") that the program's chopper had vanished. Suddenly at her side was a magician, who made the chopper reappear. The bad news was that he didn't make Dunn disappear.
Later the magician appeared with Dunn over L.A. "You guys, this is so much fun," squealed Dunn, who reports traffic like someone auditioning for "Beverly Hills, 90210." It was never clear whether the "Sky Fox" slide on the screen referred to the chopper or to Dunn.
In any event, her act really crashed Tuesday, when she appeared to become disoriented in the sky, probably thinking she was over the Azores. A sig alert here, a pile-up there. She'll sort it out in a few minutes. Tune in later for the locations.
And was the Channel 5 crew monitoring its new competition or what? By 8 a.m. Monday, Sam Rubin, the ever-resourceful, ever-funny entertainment reporter for "The KTLA Morning News," was already reporting a "rumor" that Channel 11's magician would not return on Tuesday. As usual, he was correct.
Channel 11's own entertainment reporter, Hultgreen, did return Tuesday, plodding on and on with a witlessly laborious routine that had her singing backup, without moving her lips, for Michael Damian. Meanwhile, Rubin reported the cancellation of the Fox series "Studs," a bit of news you didn't hear from Hultgreen or anyone else on Fox's "Good Day, L.A."
By now it was clear that the real "group of fun people" was on Channel 5. That other group on Channel 11 was crazy, all right, crazy like a lox.
URBAN GURU: If Bill Applegate, the new top executive at troubled KCBS-TV Channel 2, is serious about moving his station's "Action News" away from its present Police Gazette-style coverage, making Sam Hall Kaplan a regular would be a good place to start.
A former design critic for the Los Angeles Times who also covered urban affairs for the New York Times, Kaplan has been working irregularly on a per diem basis for Channel 2 as the station's urban critic, most recently turning out two tough, distinctive commentaries a week on "Action News" at 6 a.m.
Kaplan is no ivory tower critic. He gets out into the city, listening to people. The other day he hit the streets to comment on a controversy over pedestrian crosswalks. Do they increase or diminish safety?
Supporting his words with visuals, Kaplan is articulate, smart and knowledgeable, if a bit rough around the edges. He is not gentle. As a bonus, he also is not pretty. Plus, unlike most of his television colleagues, he is not only a reporter, but a writer who can memorably make a point with a descriptive phrase.
His is a cityscape where self-serving public servants became "public serpents," where L.A.'s Metro Rail system is less a commuter train than a "gravy train" for special interests.
Kaplan gives Channel 2 something no other L.A. station has. As such, he deserves a regular spot on one of the station's evening newscasts.