Countdown to Air Time for Broadcast News Team : KADY-TV, once known for its forgettable lineup of reruns, has launched the area’s only locally produced news program. Can the scrappy, family owned operation succeed where others have failed?
It is the second week of June, and John Huddy is staring out of his KADY-TV office in Oxnard at a decidedly unglamorous sight: A wire fence encircles a neglected lawn, where his family’s two dogs--who double as the station’s security force--have been digging deep holes all morning. But Huddy, who looks out over the scene this warm day in a finely tailored dark suit and elegant red tie, seems not to notice.
He has other things on his mind.
On June 28, the television station once known for its forgettable lineup of “Lost In Space” reruns and scratchy prints of “The Cisco Kid” will be launching the county’s only locally produced regional news program. Five days a week, 10 staff reporters will fan out from Simi Valley to Ojai, bringing viewers--lots of them, Huddy hopes--the day’s top events during half-hour newscasts at 6 and 10 p.m.
It will be, he says, news that viewers can use. News that is straight. News that turns its back on the hyped style prevalent on Los Angeles newscasts, where distinguishing between the evening’s news broadcasts and movies of the week becomes increasingly blurred.
Huddy, a big, charismatic man, is heralding his station’s undertaking with a characteristic lack of understatement. Earlier, in a control booth down the hall, a technician showed Huddy the newscast’s splashy opening graphics for the first time. Across the screen it came, an expanse of unidentifiable cities by night, and big, bold letters above: VCNN. Ventura County News Network.
Yes, Huddy said as he watched it, that was the look he wanted. That was the image he wanted from the start.
“We want this to be the best local news coverage in America,” Huddy says now, tapping the end of his pen on the edge of his desk. “This will not be ‘A Current Affair.’ What I want to say is: ‘We will give it to you straight, exclusive, and we will take on the L. A. Times.’ ”
If anyone doubts the seriousness of purpose of this former Miami Herald entertainment editor-turned-executive producer of CBS News in Washington, Huddy is prepared to let his actions do the talking.
He moved to Ventura County with his wife to manage the station in 1988, laying his family’s fortunes on the line when he purchased KADY two years ago from tycoon Meshulam Riklis.
He secured what many see as unusual cooperation--not to mention financial backing--from a major cable company at a time when the national climate between cable companies and local broadcasters was--and still is--generally viewed as combative.
And he has added to his payroll 24 reporters, camera operators and interns from throughout the United States, most of whom will be arriving in a few days and be scrambling to familiarize themselves with the area while also nailing down places to live.
But plenty of obstacles remain. And as the countdown to launch day nears--and engineers at the station work feverishly to make sure all the technical bugs are worked out before live air time--questions still abound.
Can this scrappy, family owned station survive among the wolverine networks? Can its news program compete with the likes of Connie and Dan a few channels away, or with the glitzy Eyeliner News? Will local advertisers cough up the money to produce video commercials when local newspapers in the county abound?
Or will VCNN go the route of two previous local news programs--one a few years before on a previous incarnation of KADY--that placed their tails between their legs and disappeared with a whimper?
Video and Juliet
The station’s director of programming moves gracefully down the KADY hallway, passing the unfinished news set where two large tarps are spread over furniture and the control room where an open floor reveals coils of cables yet to be covered by workers. When she reaches Huddy’s office and finds him conversing with his news director, she waits for a moment before turning away.
Better to come back later.
“I wait in line for him just like anyone else here,” the programming director--who also is Huddy’s wife of 24 years, Erica--says later. “It has to be that way. It couldn’t work otherwise.”
The “it” in question is delicately balancing family ties and professionalism, of working side by side--and sometimes angry forehead to angry forehead--with spouses, children, parents and in-laws.
In addition to John and Erica Huddy, there is the couple’s 23-year-old daughter, Juliet Green, who works as the station’s promotions director and hires the interns. Juliet’s husband of one year, Dan Green, 30, is the station’s newly appointed news director and also VCNN’s soon-to-be anchorman.
“He was an anchor for a station in Missouri and I was a poly-sci student at the university,” Juliet Green says of her husband. The two moved to Ventura County in October. “I fell in love with him on TV,” she says. “Then I met him at a bar. I didn’t want to sound like a groupie, but he was so cute that I just had to go up to him.”
She leads a visitor up a flight of stairs, past boxes of several hundred discarded videotapes from job applicants who didn’t make the grade, and into a large room that is empty except for a few gun-metal gray desks pushed against the walls.
This, she says, will be the newsroom, where reporters and interns will handle each day’s stories.
At that moment, Dan Green strides briskly into the middle of the empty room, waving a pink message slip in the air.
“I’d be kicking the L. A. Times’ ass with this story if I had a news team right now,” he says, slapping the piece of paper on his thigh. “But look--now they’re going to have it on the front page tomorrow. Damn!”
In the absence of a news team, would Green mind revealing the nature of the alleged hot story?
The anchorman shakes his head gravely and appears ready to eat the pink slip if necessary. “Sorry,” he says, smiling and putting the slip smoothly into his pocket. “It’s called competition.”
It is that quality in him, Juliet Green says later, that won her heart. “He’s a lot like my dad,” she says. “My dad is a real hard-nosed guy too. He’s either in a great mood or a bad mood.
“The problem is, though, that Dan has to interact a lot with my father. And if they don’t agree on something, watch out. They’ll really go at it, all out. Then Dan comes home and wants to let off steam. He’ll start cursing him and yelling about him, but it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. You’re talking about my father .’ ”
With Dan Green hardly shy or retiring in the presence of his father-in-law and Juliet Green still adjusting to the tribulations of television life, Erica Huddy says she isn’t surprised that she’s occasionally thrown into the role of confidante and advice giver at the station.
“It was really tough for John and me too when we first started working together,” she says. “I was a singer and had had my own career for years, and then, in 1988, John asked me if I wanted to get involved with the programming. I didn’t know anything about it, but it was exciting, something different. I had to learn fast .
“But then, here we were, talking about television all day at the station together, and then going home and talking about television all night. Finally, we just had to put a stop to it. So we made an agreement.
“Once we leave that door to go home, no more television talk,” she says. “And we’ve really stuck to that too. I tell Juliet that she has to constantly separate work issues from personal issues. All of us do. Of course, it’s not always so easy to do.”
“It’s not,” agrees her daughter. “But Dan and I can’t help it. Right now, TV is just consuming our lives.”
Because We Surf Here?
“Let me tell you my fear,” John Huddy is saying to Dan Green in one of the station’s conference rooms. “It’s not journalistic. It’s the technical execution--about the audio, about hearing it in the studio. . . . Engineers are famous for telling you not to worry.”
Green tells Huddy not to worry. Sure there are a few bugs to be ironed out, he says--plus, many reporters still haven’t arrived--but everything is going smoothly. In a few days, Green says, he will have a couple of reporters to send out for stories, which can then be used in a mock newscast. In essence, it will be a dress rehearsal seven days from now.
Huddy asks whether Green is any closer to finding a Latino reporter.
“Out of 400 tapes, I got one from a Hispanic male,” Green answers. “They’re just not out there.” He describes the steps he has taken: called universities, put ads in Spanish papers. No luck.
“TV is like baseball,” he says to Huddy. “You have bush leagues and majors. Few Hispanics want to be in the bush leagues.”
Huddy glares at him a moment. “This is not a bush-league station,” he says. “I’m going to look pretty stupid with just a bunch of blue-eyed males. . . . You’d have to be an idiot to be here in Ventura County and not try to be a part of the Hispanic community.”
The two then walk back to Huddy’s office for a meeting with the station’s sales and promotions staff. The topic: a catchy way to convey what VCNN is all about. “We need a burst of creativity that gets it across,” Huddy says.
“How about, ‘The greatest story ever told is your story,’ ” comes one suggestion.
“We’ll give you news that hits home,” is another.
“We’ll get it right the first time, because we live here.”
The last suggestion is bandied about. Some say they like it, that it tells people the station can’t afford to be sloppy, because “if we are, they’ll come up to us in the shopping line and tell us.” Others say it’s negative, reminding viewers that the station once had another news program.
“OK, take the best ideas--'Because we live here’ is good--and work with it,” Huddy says.
The room empties.
Crab Cakes and Cable
The Spanish Hills Golf and Country Club sits atop an immaculately manicured hill overlooking Camarillo. Its scattered palm trees rustle gently in the breeze and a fountain sprays a fine mist into the warm, evening sky. In front of the club stands a small army of tuxedo-attired waiters, three of whom descend on one of the first guests to arrive.
Soon, the lawn is covered with carefully dressed men and women milling about. It is 11 days until launch time and the station is sponsoring a cocktail party for advertisers and potential advertisers, with a sprinkling of politicians and civic leaders. All have come--if not for the fine white wine and crab cakes--to hear John Huddy convince them of the great future of VCNN.
That, of course, and the little matter of selling air time. Huddy has already made it known that he has encouraged his sales staff to circulate with contracts among the guests.
Some guests, however, appear to be sold on at least one count.
“I think there’s been a real need for a local television news program in this county,” says Dr. Chris Landon, director of both the Pediatric Diagnostic Center in Ventura and a recently opened children’s clinic in Oxnard. “I think it will add quite a bit.
“We’re trying to reach a very specific population--people who can’t afford medical care and may not know we even exist to help them,” Landon says. “If you have people watching just local news, that would be the place to tell them about just local services.”
Jim Jevens, regional director of marketing and business development with Waste Management Inc., is hoping a local TV news program--and the editorials Huddy has promised to present on topics such as the bitterly disputed Weldon Canyon dump site--will give him a chance to go on the air with a “citizen’s reply.”
“I read seven newspapers a day, and I generally watch two news broadcasts a day, and yet here I am in Camarillo and have no real local news station,” Jevens says. “I have always chided John (Huddy) over the years that we didn’t have any local news. It’s about time.”
For all John Huddy’s talents at promotion, however, the man is not about to take full credit for the creation of VCNN. There were two vital factors, he says, which set the stage for the news network.
One, he says, was his wife. Huddy said that soon after taking on the programming job, she did away with ratings killers such as “Lost in Space” and persuaded doubtful distributors to give KADY such first-run shows such as “Married . . . With Children,” “Star Trek Deep Space Nine” and “The New WKRP.”
Those evening shows--along with what now is a healthy dose of early morning cartoons, afternoon game shows, movies and sociological musings such as “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"--moved KADY from a dismal 30,000 viewers per week five years ago to 100,000 viewers, or one in seven countywide, per week in 1992, according to Nielsen figures provided by the station.
(A letter from the Nielsen company in Los Angeles confirmed KADY viewership statistics, which Nielsen had broken down by various time slots. The company, however, stated that Nielsen “expresses no opinion” regarding the methods by which KADY calculated its total viewer increase.)
With better shows, Huddy says, the station also began to make a profit.
Huddy waves off a question on the comparison between VCNN and the news program the station tried in the late ‘80s.
“Back then, there was no programming,” he says. “Excuse me, let me take that back. There was terrible programming. . . . People don’t tune in to watch a station. They tune in to watch a show.”
But better programming, he concedes, wasn’t the only thing that made VCNN possible. There also was the nice, $1-million present the station received from an unlikely source: Jones Intercable Cable Television.
“I see it as a first,” says John W. Hutton, general manager of Jones Intercable in Oxnard. “But with the cable industry itself coming to a crossroad with regulation, we’re going to have to seek out non-traditional ways to make money.”
Hutton’s spirit of cooperation with a local broadcaster isn’t shared by everyone in the industry.
Just consider the longtime animosity between broadcasters and cable companies, which came to the national spotlight last year when a fierce battle flared in Congress to re-regulate the cable TV industry.
The result was the 1992 Cable Act, which now requires cable operators to carry designated local television stations on their systems, or else pay broadcasters for transmitting their programs.
Despite the law, however, many television stations still view cable companies as cranky patients who must be force-fed their programs. Several cable operators are challenging the rule in federal court, saying it violates their First Amendment rights.
But Hutton--along with Huddy--sees the deal with KADY as a win-win situation.
“What’s in it for us is that we increase awareness for Jones Intercable and will share a return on investment,” he says. “What’s in it for them is wider exposure.
“Because of this, a lot more people are going to see VCNN.”
A Running Start
Reporter Robert Kovacik, dressed in a sport jacket and tie--with chino pants and tennis shoes worn without socks--stands in front of the Ventura County Government Center. He extends his microphone toward Supervisor John Flynn, who has agreed to an interview on the status of Weldon Canyon. The story won’t be running for at least another week, but Dan Green has sent reporters out on assignments for later broadcasts.
Kovacik, 28, asks in-depth questions that reveal he is more than familiar with the issue. Not bad for having arrived in town just a few days before.
Kovacik’s credentials--a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a former producer at CBS Morning News in New York--aren’t unusual for a KADY news staffer.
Among the new hires--named on a press release sent by the station--are reporter Jane Yamamoto, previously an associate producer at KABC in Los Angeles; sports anchor Joe Buttitta, formerly with KTLA in Los Angeles, and reporter/producer Kelley Daniels, formerly a news writer with Fox News in Los Angeles.
Erica Huddy and Juliet Green are named on the press release too.
In addition to her other duties, Erica Huddy will become the station’s entertainment reporter. Juliet Green will become its consumer reporter.
It’s 5:45 p.m., six days before kickoff, and Dan Green is in full-face makeup in front of a computer printer. The mock newscast was scheduled to start at 6, but there have been, well, small problems.
The TelePrompTer isn’t readable. A couple of printers are down and no one has a script. One of two cameras in the studio won’t zoom in or out.
Green, however, doesn’t seem worried. He turns his attention instead to what’s on his face. “I used Clinique makeup for a year, and it was great until my face broke out,” he says. “That was bad. Then I tried Lancome, but that’s $27 a bottle. So now I’ve down-graded to Cover Girl. But what I hate about all of it is that you get home, you’re tired, you don’t feel like taking it off . . . “
Green is interrupted by a technician, who needs him downstairs.
“We’re still missing some of the pieces,” says Lee Cockerton, who arrived a few days earlier from a station in Arizona to serve as the newscast director. “Most people are brand new to technical areas, and we’re having to train them all this week. But I know (management) would never give us something we couldn’t do.”
A few minutes before 7, everyone takes his place. Green stares into the camera, the floor director holds out two fingers, the theme music for VCNN is heard in the studio.
“Ten seconds!” the floor director says.
“Good evening,” Green says, introducing himself and VCNN. He then reads a story about a murder victim, home schooling and karate.
“We now turn to . . . " Green looks blankly at both cameras, down at his notes, and back at the camera. “I’m sorry, where am I?” he asks. “I have no idea where to go.”
His ear piece isn’t working, he can’t hear the off-site director. He turns to the floor director.
“Look, if I get completely lost on Monday, get really in my face,” he says. “Otherwise I’ll have no idea where to go.”
Four days until air time.
And Now The News...
“I think everyone needs to take a large chill pill,” says master control operator Roger Proulx as he enters the news set. No one--including Juliet Green, who is feeding pages onto the TelePrompTer, or the camera crew beyond--asks him what he means.
In half an hour, the station’s first broadcast will beam into televisions across the county.
“If I just had one more week,” Huddy says in the hallway. “Every run-through we’ve had, there’s been some stupid mistake.”
AT 5:45, Huddy talks with control operators, engineers and reporters. Newscast director Cockerton jots down numbers. Dan Green is having makeup applied, and a few minutes later he is joined by Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael Bradbury.
At 5:53, Green takes his place on the set, fanning his face with his hands. There is a hush on set. “I just want this over with,” Green says.
“Two minutes!” yells floor director Todd Fergusen.
“Oh, my heart,” Juliet Green says from a corner.
Huddy strides into the room and walks up to his anchorman. “If things go wrong, as I know they will, my dear son-in-law, have a sense of humor.” He leaves.
Theme music. Graphics. A finger points from the floor director.
“Good evening,” Green says, reading teasers off his TelePrompTer. He goes on to read a story on an alleged rape in Ventura, a brush fire in Simi Valley, a building project in Oxnard. There is a cut for a commercial.
The crew breaks into tense talking for one minute.
Then they’re live again. Ferguson is almost crawling on top of Green’s desk--out of sight of the camera--to show Green where to go. It works. Green turns smoothly to the second camera and introduces Bradbury, who’s there for an interview about the D. A.'s political corruption unit.
After a commercial break, weatherman Terry Finn delivers a seamless forecast with no graphics foul-ups. By the time sportscaster Joe Buttitta is on, things are going so smoothly that he actually looks as if he’s having fun. And then, Green, on behalf of his crew, says good night.
All eyes turn to the monitor on the set. A voice comes from the control booth: “Five-four-three-two-one, fade-out!”
The set erupts in loud, thunderous clapping. Assistant News Director Noelle Walker, her eyes filled with tears, throws her arms around Juliet Green.
Huddy enters the room with his wife and turns, visibly moved, to the staff. For the first time, he seems at a loss for words.
“This is the first of, how many thousand?”