On the Media: Applying the brakes on KNBC’s California Nonstop
KNBC-TV has a new 24-hour news and feature station called California Nonstop. If you haven’t noticed, that might be because you live in the roughly half of Los Angeles-area homes (many with satellite TV) that don’t get the channel. Or you might not have found the station because the NBC affiliate isn’t happy enough with its new product to begin promoting it just yet.
Station management describes California Nonstop, which includes a live hour of news at 7 p.m., as a “tremendous opportunity” to expand coverage of L.A. and Southern California, though it concedes that many of the programs are in the work-in-progress stage. Some inside the station are less generous. “Like cable station amateur hour,” one reporter, who requested anonymity, told me. “It’s painful to watch,” said another, adding, “It’s absolutely slapped together.”
What California Nonstop represents, more globally, is what happens when the massive bandwidth and opportunity of the multi-channel universe collides with the broader media’s attendant realities: fragmented ad spending, reduced revenue and smaller news staffs.
The new bosses at NBC4 in Los Angeles have a huge new canvas to fill with the channel. They have, in Southern California, a fascinating palette to paint with. But they’re trying to complete the picture with essentially the same staff already straining to put out five other news shows a day.
The result looks about like what you might expect: moments of promise, long stretches that fail to engage and bumpy transitions that give California Nonstop a homemade, “let’s throw together a news station” kind of feel.
Take “Nonstop Scene in California.” (Please.) It’s just one of several new programs but an unfortunately emblematic one. The half-hour promises it will be “illuminating the people, places and things that make California distinctive.” A recent episode featured a woman who owns four dachshunds. I’m not sure why the show featured her, though it gave a veterinarian the chance to say that owning four dogs isn’t twice as much work as owning two. Another “Scene” segment highlighted an optometrist discussing whether street signs are easier to see in all uppercase letters. (No, he opined, a mix of upper- and lowercase works best on the eyes.)
To be generous, the new programming (which can be found on Time Warner Cable on Channel 225; Channel 804, Cox Cable; Channel 304, Charter Communications; and at Channel 460 on Verizon FiOS) has been up for only a little more than a month. There’s reason to hope that the shows — which range in focus from news to food to travel to current affairs — will be sharpened.
“This is a huge opportunity to do more news, in a different way, to cover more stories and do interviews, things we can’t do in the same way in a 30-minute newscast on a traditional channel,” said Vickie Burns, who took over 10 months ago as KNBC’s vice president of news and content.
But there’s also reason for a dose of skepticism because NBC4 is trying to expand its content like a lot of other media players these days — on the cheap, exhorting its employees to work harder and hoping its audience equates more with better. Burns made no apologies for pushing her staff to create the station with little additional help, saying long work hours are a reality of the 21st century news business.
More enervated than illuminated by the first shows on the menu, I nonetheless stayed tuned for “Nonstop Foodies.” The half-hour show is devoted to restaurants and cooking. Reporters from KNBC host the show, which likes to camp out at local restaurants where, no doubt, there will be opportunities for “product integration” — at least that has been the pattern with feature programs in other NBC “Nonstop” cities.
The best hope for the kind of intelligent television news coverage a lot of us would like to see comes with “Nonstop News L.A.,” the 7 p.m. newscast featuring anchor Colleen Williams. The veteran newswoman goes over the day’s stories, often taking double the time she would on the standard newscast, and interviews guests in the studio.
Good news: The hour-long program will try to tackle complicated stories in depth, something many local newscasts have largely given up on. This would also reverse the imperative under previous news boss Steve Lange, who led KNBC to obsess on celebrity-lite coverage — a trend that reached bottom when one of the women from “Real Housewives of Orange County” acted as a “reporter” on a story about new credit card regulations.
“Nonstop News L.A.” has looked at issues such as new federal mortgage lending rules, a state tax incentive to keep Hollywood production from going out of town and a program to expand medical coverage to California’s poor. On the latter story, Williams interviewed a public policy expert about the healthcare changes.
Bad news: The show has to get by with little more than one producer. Though coworkers describe Williams as excited to be doing the extended show, she sometimes anchors as many as three other newscasts an evening. Without the background work, the additional minutes can feel tacked on — only pretending to plumb below the headlines.
The concept of a local, 24-hour news operation is hardly novel. In New York 19 years ago, Time Warner launched NY1, and it now offers a respectable brew of weather, news and deeper programs on such topics as City Hall and the theater, along with a call-in program on the news of the day.
The bigs at NBCUniversal in New York don’t appear to have designed the “Nonstop” franchise to go deeper. It has been rolled into nine of the 10 local markets around the country where the company owns stations, beginning in New York two years ago. The New York outlet made money by the end of its first year, executives said.
And that was without hiring a lot of new staff. Burns, the woman who accomplished the task there, is running the news at KNBC in L.A. NBCUniversal has an additional incentive to keep the programs in place, since a merger deal with Comcast requires the network to increase its local programming by 1,000 hours a year on the stations it owns and operates.
But if it’s looking to do more than make a profit and paper over an FCC requirement — hitching thin content to infomercial-style ads for Ginsu knives and man-scaping devices — Comcast needs to open its healthy checkbook for California Nonstop.
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