On the Media: KNBC-TV’s Steve Lange departs abruptly
You’d never know it from the serene and smiling faces plastered on the on-air talent, but a psychodrama has been playing out for many months at KNBC News.
It has pitted traditional television journalists and story tellers at Channel 4 against a nouveau crowd of content creators who prefer their sizzle served up hot, preferably without much steak.
Steve Lange presided as a veritable Top Chef over the new menu. As KNBC’s “vice president, content,” Lange dished up news programs chock-full of celebrities, hot-looking young people and entertainment tie-ins, all the better if the segments promoted other NBC Universal properties.
While that approach pervades much of local television news these days, Lange pushed it with particular gusto, up to the time he stepped down Tuesday, ending a 110-day tenure that turned KNBC into one of the L.A.’s cheesiest news brands.
At the same time the station announced Lange’s sudden departure, its management issued a statement conceding that it had not lived up to its “journalistic standards” when it aired a faked-up news segment in February about new federal credit card rules.
A station spokesman insisted that Lange’s departure was not connected to that segment, in which a reality TV producer was hired to produce a very unreal “news” segment that turned one of the “Real Housewives of Orange County” into a news reporter.
I reported on this real-housewifery a couple of weeks ago, decrying the use of reality character Vicki Gunvalson as a reporter who interviewed people at an Orange County boutique about new federal credit card rules.
I’ve since learned that the segment was about as real as the chests of many of the women who adorn “Real Housewives.” The customers interviewed in the segment were actually friends of Gunvalson’s, not strangers encountered in “man in the street” style reportage that the segment appeared to be, according to several people inside the station.
When I called the owner of the La Diva, where KNBC filmed the segment, she had little interest in talking about a news controversy. “Every single person there, that was their personal opinion,” Liza Mahler said. “It wasn’t scripted or anything.”
Standards have slipped so low in local TV news that maybe Mahler, whose shop is billed on Facebook as “a shopping mecca for ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County,’ ” represents the prevailing public sentiment.
So what if a news crew wants to bring together a few friends to tart up a story?
But even in local news operations, with their long-standing blurring of lines between news and entertainment, it’s been understood that events should be presented as they occur, not by concocting a facsimile for more compelling on-air presentation.
If you don’t know what I mean, think of the saddening climax of the 1987 film “Broadcast News,” when the Holly Hunter character discovers that her fellow TV reporter and lover, played by William Hurt, has conjured up crocodile tears to maximize a story’s emotional punch.
Mahler didn’t have much patience with my questions. “I am over it,” the boutique owner said, though she did offer one pearl about her friend Gunvalson before rushing off the line: “I don’t know how Vicki got mixed up with that. I don’t see her as any kind of credit card guru.”
KNBC spokesman Kim Reed declined to go into details about the segment. KNBC’s statement acknowledged that the “news gathering methods…were, regrettably, not up to our journalistic standards” and left it at that.
The station said it’s “taking steps to prevent this from happening again,” though it didn’t say what they were. KNBC announced Tuesday afternoon that Susan Tully, NBC’s content guru in Dallas, will be coming to Los Angeles to help with the transition.
It remains unclear what all the factors were that led to Lange’s departure, after less than four months on the job. He brought on a frothy weekend anchor, Andy Adler, with an apparent aversion to both higher English and blouses with sleeves. He wanted Hollywood types to comment on even serious news, such as Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants.
But he certainly shouldn’t bear anything close to sole responsibility for the decades-long retreat of news in favor of entertainment, making evening reports look more like “Entertainment Tonight” and “Extra” with each passing day.
Some of KNBC’s stars reportedly met with management in recent days to defend Lange. Even those unhappy with his directives told me in recent days they don’t hold him solely responsible, blaming the bosses at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York for driving the entertainment imperative.
The journalists point to programs like “LX New York,” which has replaced the 5 p.m. news at WNBC in New York with lite fare designed to attract women viewers. The network money people value such programs, because they are run outside the news division and therefore can take more liberties about pushing advertisers into programs, not just commercials. (By one estimate, local TV news revenue dropped a fearsome 22%, industry-wide, in 2009.)
Some staffers at KNBC wonder if such programs will eventually take over the 5 and 6 p.m. time slots, ending the long tradition of the dinnertime local newscasts and relegating local television news to late-night alone.
Liz Fischer, a spokeswoman from the corporate office, tried to nix the idea that the New York bosses would meddle in local news. “Editorial decisions in the newsroom,” Fischer said in an e-mail, “are determined in each market by the news director and their team.”
Excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical. Local TV news is a lot like the rest of media these days: Nobody really knows what recipe will come flying out of the kitchen next, or even who’s back there, minding the stove.
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