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A hire reality for TV news

Times Staff Writer

If you tuned into “KTLA Morning News” on Nov. 12, you saw crowds consumed by rage and grief swarming over the casket of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a Washington, D.C., correspondent in muffler and furrowed brow described the chaos. Then, cameras switched to coanchor Michaela Pereira.

“We’ll have more for you later,” she said. “But of course, what people in L.A. are talking about are supermodels and ‘The Audition.’ ”

Clearly, shallow infotainment has been creeping into morning news shows with the now-standard personal chitchat and glamorous personalities. But with “The Audition,” an “American Idol"-style promotion, KTLA went one step further -- using a reality-show format to hire a member of its news team. The on-air competition that ends a November sweeps run Wednesday pitted contestants with and without experience against one another for a real weathercaster’s job on the 10 p.m. news.

Even in the usually clear, sunny and 75-degree Southland, weathercasting is serious business, said Jim Naureckas, editor of “Extra!,” the magazine of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

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Screenwriting instructor Linda Voorhees said she was shocked after watching “The Audition.” “I don’t even know how to voice what went on in the pit of my stomach when I saw it,” said Voorhees, a visiting assistant professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. “How can you expect a news audience to have an essential belief in your organization as you deliver the news when you turn it into a reality-TV show?”

In September, KTLA solicited contestants for “The Audition” in entertainment trade publications and talent agencies specifying that no broadcast or meteorological experience was required. Of the hundreds who applied, 16 were chosen on the basis of “comfort in front of the camera, dynamics and overall performance that would relate well to viewers.”

Some applicants saw little difference between a newscast and a theatrical production. “Putting together a news team is like putting together a play,” said Gina Cancelliere, a Miami meteorologist who made it to the semifinal round. “You need somebody to appeal to the mom, somebody to appeal to the dad, someone for the single guy, someone for the single girl. Somebody to bring in all the demographics. It’s what they’re trying to do all across the country.”

As on MTV’s “The Real World,” contestants were taped backstage fidgeting and fretting before their weekly live auditions. They evaluated their rivals in solo video segments. Like “The Apprentice” and “American Idol,” a panel of judges -- in this case from the news department -- commented on the contestants’ on-air performances. And like “The Bachelor,” the pool was winnowed each week. The winner will receive a 30-day contract as a newscaster.

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Over the last 13 years, KTLA (owned by Tribune Co., parent company of The Times) has blended infotainment with news in a nontraditional format that has since spread around the country, said Jymm Adams, director of the station’s creative services department, an in-house advertising agency that came up with the idea for “The Audition.” The show is just another way to bring in the audience -- in this case, to see the real hiring process, he said. “If you were going to apply for the weathercaster [job], you would do 90% of what’s happening on air,” he said.

Private comments from journalists about “The Audition,” even some within KTLA’s news organization, have ranged from “dumb” to “disgusting.”

“It’s an embarrassment to journalism,” said Ron Fineman, an independent blogger whose Web log, “On the Record,” covers local TV newsrooms in Los Angeles. Fineman, who has also been critical of so-called weatherbabes on KCAL and KTTV, said he’s received several e-mails from journalists who are offended by “The Audition.”

The judges’ criteria “further cheapens an already tawdry branch of the news industry,” Naureckas said. Local TV journalists are among the most cynical in the profession, he added. Rather than argue with him, he said most “would accuse me of being naive to think it could be something else.”

KTLA news director Jeff Wald said he had no qualms that any ethical line between news and entertainment might have been crossed. “Gosh, that line has been crossed so many times,” he said.

Entertainment reporter Sam Rubin (recently suspended for his barbed jokes about a temporary news set) said “Morning News” had actually gone much further, in his opinion, in reporting from the grotto at the Playboy Mansion and in interviewing Roseanne and Tom Arnold in bed. During November sweeps, “KTLA Morning News” has also featured “hunky Santas” and supermodels amid the usual fluffy banter served up with the news.

On KTLA’s website, several writers speculated that the contest was fixed, a charge that Wald and Adams deny. Wald said that he has wide latitude in picking a weathercaster because in Los Angeles, the weather is mostly a nonevent, and that the job, like sports, is personality-driven. In any case, Wald said the winner will be thoroughly trained. In the event of catastrophic weather-related news, such as mudslides, the news is typically turned over to reporters, he said.

Meteorologist contestant Cancelliere was the morning and noon weathercaster for the ABC affiliate WTLG in Miami. “I feel in my gut that I’ve got it,” she said before the final round. “I think they probably have a good idea of the sort of person they want to fill the spot,” she said.

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Cancelliere beat finalist Tami Anderson, a former housemate on “The Real World,” but lost to two others with experience: Ross King, the Hollywood correspondent for a British TV station; and Beth Sweeney, a Lexington, Ky., traffic reporter and runner-up in the Miss Kentucky contest.

Looking genuinely shocked after the on-air announcement, Cancelliere remarked bitterly to “Morning News” weathercaster Mark Kriski that her in-depth training and experience were things that apparently weren’t “wanted or needed.” Earlier Kriski had said that serious qualifications don’t really matter in weathercasting. “I have one word for you -- Jillian,” he said, referring to Jillian Barberie, KTTV’s morning weathercaster who also co-hosts the station’s “Good Day L.A.” and other highly promoted specials.

KTLA is not the first news show to use reality-style programming to hire personnel. Last month, ESPN chose Kent State University senior David Holmes as its second SportsCenter anchor after he won the position in the station’s unscripted series “Dream Job.” Viewers’ votes counted for 20% of the decision. The show will return for a third season in February with former pro athletes competing for an ESPN analyst job.

Last May, KMEX, L.A.'s Univision affiliate, hired a weekend weather anchor, Gisela Teissier, chosen by viewers from among 705 candidates. Teissier had 10 years of broadcast experience in Venezuela but was trained for three months before her first on-air weather report. Now, KMEX is on the hunt for a sportscaster who will be announced Wednesday. That position will be decided by three judges.

In an era of shrinking news budgets, attention spans and youthful audiences, Voorhees predicted more television programmers will be jumping on the reality wagon. “They are hysterical and desperate even as they are arrogant and cynical,” she said.

KTTV’s “Good Day Live” has a search underway for a “true New Yorker” to join the show as a guest correspondent. In another program, “Lights, Camera, Action!: The Good Day Live Experience,” now underway, the program is taking a 16-city tour to give screen tests to contestants. The winner, to be judged by a panel of local celebrities, broadcasters and local VIPs, will come to Los Angeles and appear on the show.

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Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.

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