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Bay Area: I Want My NBC

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sam Jennings has learned a lot about the TV viewing habits of his friends since NBC changed its local affiliate station on New Year’s Eve. When NBC switched from San Francisco-based KRON to San Jose’s KNTV, tens of thousands of viewers in the northern broadcast area discovered that they couldn’t pick up the new channel--including four of Jennings’ friends, for whom he now videotapes their favorite NBC shows.

“They’re not about to pay for cable to watch ‘Will & Grace,’” Jennings said. “One surprising thing about this whole NBC nonsense is that I’ve discovered that people I would never have imagined [to be] devotees of sitcoms are [fans of these shows]. One friend in particular wants episodes of ‘Just Shoot Me,’ which is, in my opinion, the stupidest thing on the air.”

Or not on the air--as is the case for some 145,000 households in the country’s fifth-largest television market, which stretches from San Jose to San Francisco, where most of the lost viewers are located.

When NBC switched its affiliation to KNTV after 50 years with KRON, it did more than change from Channel 4 to Channel 11--it also switched transmitters from Mt. Sutro in San Francisco to Loma Prieta south of San Jose.

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That meant that homes that could never get the signal in the southern reaches of the market finally got NBC, but that tens of thousands of viewers in the north who took broadcast TV as a birthright suddenly found themselves staring at a screen full of snow instead of “The West Wing” or “ER.”

NBC’s “Must See TV,” the San Francisco Chronicle carped, turned into “Can’t See TV” for many.

The timing, too, just before the February ratings sweeps (which began Thursday) and the Winter Olympics (opening Friday), has galled many would-be viewers.

“I feel abandoned by NBC,” said Michelle La Plante, a law student in San Francisco, who turned to Channel 4 one day after the switch and found an infomercial instead of NBC fare.

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Still, most viewers have managed to locate NBC. On a recent Thursday, for example, the network finished second in prime time, grabbing 14% of the available audience, just behind CBS.

“KNTV is doing remarkably well,” said Steve Doerr, NBC senior vice president for news and programming. “It has exceeded our hopes and expectations. Four weeks ago no one had even heard of this station. Now it’s No. 1 or 2 in many categories. That’s unbelievable. We’re neck and neck with the guys who’ve been around for 60 years; we’ve been around three weeks.”

Ratings growth notwithstanding, KNTV’s news operation has already been dinged by Grade the News, a Bay Area media watchdog group, which gave the station a D+ for its local coverage.

“KNTV’s newscast was the worst we’ve ever rated for newsworthiness,” wrote John McManus, on the group’s Web site, gradethenews.org, adding that the station’s newscasts “were riddled with ‘Journalism 101' errors you just don’t expect to see in the nation’s fifth-largest market.”

Move Is Paying Off

Already for KNTV

Affiliation changes remain rare, although there was a flurry of such activity in the mid-1990s, after Fox boldly convinced a dozen stations affiliated with the three elder networks to align themselves with Fox, which had just acquired rights to NFL games.

KNTV, which has seen its prime-time market share jump from 1% to double digits, certainly seems happy.

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“Switches are disruptive,” said Bob Franklin, the general manager for KNTV. “It takes a while for viewers to establish viewing patterns. It can be months and months before markets solidify. But the bottom line is that 20 days after the switch, we’re No. 1 or 2 in morning news, the ‘Today’ show, prime time, late news and late night. I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve never seen such an extraordinary acceptance of a product so soon into a switch.”

The machinations behind the channel switch itself sound like the stuff of a TV miniseries. KRON was born as an NBC affiliate in 1949 and owned for half a century by the Chronicle Publishing Co., which was controlled by the heirs of the De Young family, who also owned the Chronicle newspaper. In 1999, the family put the company’s assets on the block.

NBC offered $700 million for KRON--which would have given the network an owned-and-operated station in the largest market where it lacked one. But NBC was outbid by Young Broadcasting, which owns KCAL in Los Angeles among dozens of other independent stations. Young wound up paying about $737 million in cash and stock for KRON, figuring it could make money either as a network affiliate or as an independent--NBC seemed to have no place else to go.

Then KNTV stepped into the picture. The San Jose station had been a secondary ABC affiliate in the Salinas-Monterey market before it became an independent in 2000. When NBC and Young couldn’t come to terms over an affiliation agreement, the network decided to go with Granite Broadcasting’s KNTV.

In December, NBC announced that it was buying the channel for $230 million, knowing that the change in transmitters would cause some viewers to lose the network’s over-the-air signal.

“The topography of the San Francisco area compounds the problem,” said Jay Ireland, president of NBC TV stations. “You have a lot of dead spots.”

Which is why more than 80% of households in the area have cable. The network, in fact, decided to advertise the station as NBC3 for its position on the cable dial and joined with AT&T; Broadband to aggressively market cable subscriptions on everything from grocery bags to billboards. AT&T; spokesman Andrew Johnson said cable subscriptions jumped 15% to 20%.

Even so, some apartment dwellers still can’t get cable, and others have balked at spending anywhere from $14 a month (just to improve their broadcast reception) to $35 for basic cable to get a channel that is nominally free.

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Looking to Improve

Signal in Problem Areas

Out of 2.4 million households in the market, NBC says it has received about 10,000 e-mails and letters complaining about lost reception. The network has dispatched trucks to prowl those ZIP codes that are having the hardest time getting NBC to better map problem areas. NBC is also considering using low-power signal repeaters to boost reception in certain neighborhoods during the Olympics. .

“If it works, it may give us a permanent solution,” said NBC’s Ireland. “We’re trying to reach as many viewers as possible.”

Moving the transmitter is also being studied. “It’s quite possible we could move it and very quickly,” said KNTV’s Franklin. “But no matter where you put the tower, there will always be neighborhoods that won’t get the signal. The south Bay has had to deal with the lack of reception for stations in the north Bay for 40 years. Everyone will not be satisfied.”

While people in San Francisco who have lost NBC say they’re watching less TV and spending more time reading or listening to music, some in the south Bay are actually gloating.

“KNTV should resolve to tell the whiny television elitists in San Francisco they should shut their sourdough yaps,” wrote San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy, who was just getting warmed up.

“Folks up in the Bay Area’s second-largest city complained that the signal was too weak to pick up there. Awww. Too bad. For years, we South Bay residents without cable hookups had to twizzle and bend our outdoor antennas to pick up San Francisco stations. Now it’s payback time, baby. If anyone in San Francisco really misses ‘Fear Factor,’ they can always walk outside and confront a few aggressive panhandlers.”


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