KCAL-TV Channel 9, the last remaining major independent station in the market, suddenly has become a significant force in the battle for local viewers.
Riding the backs of Jerry Springer, "Judge Judy" and Shaquille O'Neal, Channel 9 surged impressively during the May ratings sweeps, scoring several competitive milestones:
* Without any help from prime-time network programming like "Seinfeld" or "NYPD Blue," Channel 9 became the third most-watched station in the market on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., trailing only KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KABC-TV Channel 7. Last year the station was No. 6.
* KCAL's daytime lineup finished second in the market, trailing only Channel 7 with its schedule of ABC soap operas and the syndicated "Oprah Winfrey Show."
* Channel 9's combination of "Judge Judy" and local news finished second only to "Oprah" in the 3 to 4 p.m. hour, even topping the much ballyhooed "Rosie O'Donnell Show" on Channel 4.
Not bad for a station that is the last of the seven English-language VHF outlets to go without the programming and promotional muscle of either the major broadcast networks or the newer fledgling webs like WB and UPN.
KCAL, owned by Young Broadcasting since 1996, makes up for that programming deficit by airing more local news than anyone else, including three hours each weeknight in prime time, and by broadcasting the games of every major professional sports team in L.A. and Orange counties except for the Dodgers.
"It was a tremendous sweeps for us," said Don Corsini, KCAL's general manager for the last two years. "Historically, Channel 9 has been a sleeper. No one pays much attention to us, but we have been No. 2 in daytime the last few ratings books. It's fun being the independent. It allows you to do things differently because you have to. We don't have any network shows handed to us, scheduled for us like all the other guys."
The wild card as the station moves ahead is, appropriately, the wild "Jerry Springer." Its ascendance has pulled Channel 9 up the ratings mountain with it. Similarly, the even larger audiences tuned in for the Lakers' playoff games provided the station a network-like opportunity to promote its newscasts during commercial breaks.
"The growth of 'Springer' has given us an opportunity to promote our other programs to viewers who perhaps never watched Channel 9 before. So we do that heavily, and that surely helps our entire lineup," Corsini said. "And with the playoff games, the opportunity to promote the news in that high- profile a vehicle is extremely critical to the station. That's like promoting during 'Seinfeld' and 'ER.' We don't have a regular network lead-in. Our lead-in is just us. So that is a huge gift."
On the other hand, "Springer," especially at the start of his ratings rise, was not an advertiser favorite, and so the station was content to use it primarily to promote news and its daytime programs such as "Judge Judy." Now, however, since the ratings have been so high for the past year, the station has been able to fill the show with advertisers and increase the rates it charges.
Corsini doubts that trend will continue now that the distributors of "Springer" have ordered the fistfights and other violence cut, but it's too soon to tell for certain.
Still, KCAL is expecting another boost come fall when it eliminates its weekday afternoon block of children's programming. KCAL's previous owner, the Walt Disney Co., had used the station as an outlet for some of the studio's cartoon series from 4 to 5:30 p.m. But that has disrupted the adult audience flow the station enjoys for the rest of the day.
"Without a doubt, the cartoons are incompatible with the rest of our lineup," Corsini said. "What we've done is say, 'OK, please watch our afternoon lineup. Please watch "Judge Judy" and the news, then go away somewhere else, and we'll be back in an hour and a half after this cartoon break.' It doesn't work. While kids' programming has been a decent business for us, we find that, not only from a competitive standpoint but from a fiscal standpoint, it's better to stick with programming for adults all the way through."
Corsini will move the children's shows to the early morning and the weekend this fall and will fill the vacancy with either more court shows--both "Judge Judy" and "People's Court," with Ed Koch, have been thriving on Channel 9--or talk shows or news. He declined to be more specific about the station's plans but insisted that the switch won't disappoint too many children.
"If you look at the ratings, the audience erosion among kids' programming, not only at Channel 9 but in the entire marketplace, indicates that kids just aren't here anymore," Corsini said. "They are watching [cable's] Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. That particular market for local stations has dissipated considerably compared to five or 10 years ago."
Except for the children's programs, Corsini said that Channel 9's mission remains the same as it was under Disney: localism. Disney implemented the news emphasis and used the station as an outlet for its own professional sports teams--baseball's Angels and hockey's Mighty Ducks.
And Corsini, who was a top executive at KABC in its heyday in the 1980s, said he hoped to produce more local shows in addition to all the news, perhaps in the vein of a magazine program like the defunct "Eye on L.A." he oversaw at KABC. Such efforts, he said, are still in the planning stages, however, as the station searches for a production partner to help share some of the costs.
"Except for news, you don't really see any locally produced programming anymore," Corsini said. "The market has changed so drastically over the past 10 years. So does the local aspect of what we can do intrigue me and is it of value to the community? Absolutely. We will do more local programming in the future."