For years the 10 p.m. newscast on KTLA-TV Channel 5 has been a model of dignity and decorum steering clear of the sex, celebrity and space alien stories that pepper the evening news during the rating sweeps period.
But not anymore.
Stung by the loss of its dominant position to KTTV-TV Channel 11, Channel 5 has launched a series of titillating segments for the current sweeps including cybersex, pornography, alien life forms and cloning.
"Hey, it's hype," said Hal Fishman, KTLA's longtime anchor and managing editor. "I'm not big on hype, but it seems that's what everyone does. And if it's what people want, we'll do it."
Every year at this time, Nielsen Media Research conducts its most important survey, the much-heralded May sweeps. TV networks and local stations will roll out their sexiest, goriest and most expensive programming in the next four weeks in an effort to attract viewers and thus get the big ratings numbers that are so critical in determining how much stations can charge advertisers for time.
On the local news front, the always ferocious fight among L.A.'s seven VHS TV stations becomes a bloodbath in May. And one of the most competitive battlegrounds is the 10 o'clock news, where Fishman and KTLA are literally fighting a war against old age.
KTLA long has dominated the 10 p.m. news contest, but it was dethroned in last year's May sweeps by KTTV and, while beating its rival in most non-sweeps months, lost again during the November and February sweeps.
Meanwhile, KTTV's younger anchors, faster-paced newscast and Fox network lead-in are attracting a much younger audience than KTLA (and thus more desirable for advertisers).
Fishman, who has sat behind the anchor desk at KTLA for 30 years, isn't taking it sitting down.
The 10 p.m. newscast is counting on a stronger-than-usual lead-in from a package of movies that will run in prime time on KTLA, including "Star Wars" on May 6. The station also will roll out a series of in-depth reports on such hot-button topics as cybersex, the paranormal, and the gang wars between East Coast and West Coast rap artists.
Still, KTLA remains a different kind of newscast. While its competitors place a premium on live reports, KTLA is more likely to run segments taped earlier in the day.
TV news consultants say that the live shots attract bigger audiences, but Fishman makes the obvious point: Live reports at 10 p.m. usually entail a reporter standing in front of a dark building or house whose occupants aren't there or refuse to comment.
Meanwhile, the expensive graphics, team coverage and hair-raising teasers that characterize other local newscasts are downplayed on KTLA. While most stations have a male and female anchor team, Fishman flies solo.
And the station has an unusually large team of older reporters including Stan Chambers, who started his career at KTLA in 1947 and continues to cover late-breaking crime stories, and sportscaster Stu Nahan, a 43-year broadcasting veteran.
Finally, until this year, the station didn't spend any money on outside media to advertise its nightly news show.
The station's low-key style and Fishman's status as one of the longest-running TV anchors in the country had served KTLA well until last year, when KTTV began attracting more attention from viewers.
Don Fitzpatrick, who runs an executive search firm for on-air talent in San Francisco, said KTTV beefed up its newscast by offering high salaries to TV journalists and attracting top talent from around the country.
"It has Fox-ified its newscast," Fitzpatrick said meaning that owner Fox Inc. has spent large amounts of money to make a fast-paced news program that appeals to young audiences.
Indeed, the demographic figures for KTLA and KTTV look like a mirror image of each other: The rating numbers get steadily higher as the audience gets older for KTLA, while the opposite is true of the viewing audience for KTTV's 10 p.m. news.
"If both stations were to do a story on funding for college loans, KTLA would focus on what it means to you as a parent, while we would focus on what it means to you as a student," said Jose Rios, KTTV's vice president of news.
But the differences don't end there. Some local critics blame Fishman himself for KTLA's audience erosion.
"I never could understand why (KTLA) had the ratings success they did, because Hal Fishman does not have a personality you would respond to," said Judith Marlane, chairwoman of the radio, television and film department at Cal State Northridge. "People don't want to see the same person who doesn't seem to have the capacity to interact with the audience. He's just there, and he's been there for a long time."
Fishman, a former political science professor who became a television news anchor in 1960, is credited with building KTLA's nightly newscast into the most successful in the L.A. market. Though he is not the station's news director, he acknowledged that his contract with KTLA and his position as managing editor give him a great deal of power over decisions affecting the newscast.
And he makes no apologies for his bare-bones delivery. "My philosophy of television is very simple: Just tell the people what's going on," Fishman said.
Behind the camera, there have been considerable personnel changes in the last year at KTLA. Station manager John Reardon was promoted to general manager six months ago after former GM Greg Nathanson left to work for Fox. The station also has a new marketing head, station manager and news director. David Goldberg, a former news director with a Dallas TV station, was brought in last fall to replace former news chief Craig Hume.
The new director of creative services, who handles the station's advertising and promotions, is Gracelyn Brown. Soon after her arrival two months ago, Brown noticed that none of the station's advertising budget was allocated to promoting the nightly newscast. She quickly shifted funds to that category; she won't say how much, but noted that it's in the high six figures.
This month, a radio campaign promoting the 10 p.m. newscast will be launched in the L.A. market, followed by a billboard campaign this summer.
"This is a marathon, it's not a sprint," Brown said. "We're really going to step up our pace in this marathon and aggressively promote the news at 10."
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