TV news in L.A. is getting to be a clich & #233;.
There's the preoccupation with crime, freeway car chases and anything involving celebrities.
There's the extended segment devoted to the weather each night, even if, as one local weatherman acknowledges, L.A. weather is often just "night and morning low clouds" for weeks at a time.
And then there's the live remote shot of a reporter, standing in front of a darkened courthouse, talking about a trial that ended hours earlier.
Sensational, superficial, pandering to the lowest common denominator why, the critics ask, is TV news the way it is?
The answer is simple: It pays the bills. It is, in fact, a finely tuned, highly calculated, money-making machine.
"It is all driven by money, the whole thing," said Pete Noyes, a local TV news veteran who now teaches at Loyola Marymount University. "They believe they are on track by making meaningless live shots and helicopter chases.
"Why do they do it? It's big bucks," added Noyes, who was formerly managing editor at both KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KCBS-TV Channel 2. "They don't cover the MTA, they don't cover Sacramento. They can't afford a good political reporter because of the millions they pay their anchors."
The obsession with viewership is, of course, all about higher ratings, which leads to higher ad revenues, which translates to greater profits for the station. And the stakes are particularly high in Los Angeles, where an estimated $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion in advertising revenue is fought over daily by the local stations most of which are network owned and operated (O & Os;).
Although the revenue streams are closely kept secrets, news departments can generate 30 percent to 50 percent of the revenues at the major O & Os;, said John Culliton, general manager of KCBS.
"These stations in a major market are the cash cows for the companies," Culliton said.
Indeed, profits from local stations owned by a broadcasting company are often higher than from the network itself. CBS is expected to lose at least $100 million this year. KCBS will be in the black.
Broadcasting companies rely on local station revenues and profits because the cost of producing news is a pittance compared with the cost of developing a prime-time drama or comedy. Plus, no one is about to cancel the local news.
In fact, broadcasting companies long have toyed with the idea of selling their networks and concentrating on the station lineup. In recent years, the networks have been buying local stations and turning them into owned-and-operated stations because they are so profitable.
Well branded over a period of decades, a network-owned station becomes a valuable asset in a vastly diverse universe of 200 channels. This is especially important when the audience for network programming continues to shrink.
Still, it takes money to make money and the local news operations are no exception.
It costs Los Angeles television stations between $20 million and $30 million a year to produce their news programming, with salary and helicopters taking up the largest portion of those budgets, according to industry experts.
KNBC is the most prosperous of the Los Angeles stations, and its expenditures may already top the $30 million mark, according to Noyes.
The stations themselves won't confirm those estimates but the National Association of Broadcasters' 1997 Television Financial Report offers some indication of local TV news budgets.
In the top 10 markets, the average annual cost of news operations for affiliates of NBC, ABC and CBS was $16.5 million, with the top quarter of that group spending an average of $22 million, according to the report.
Costs in Los Angeles likely exceed those averages, both because this is the No. 2 market in the country (after New York) and because of the sprawling terrain "from the desert to the sea," as longtime L.A. newscaster Jerry Dunphy is fond of saying.
While the salaries of editorial personnel are confidential, some light was shed last year when employees at KNBC were accidentally mailed a list of approximate annual salaries at the station by their union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
While not giving exact figures, the document showed that seven reporters or anchors in 1996 were making more than $500,000. Seven other anchors or reporters were making between $200,000 and $300,000, and eight were making between $100,000 and $200,000.
"Nobody else has salaries like that in town," said Noyes. "Most of the reporters are getting $60,000, or $70,000 at KTLA and KTTV, and even KABC."
Like everything else in TV news, high salaries are paid because anchors, weather personalities and sportscasters represent a big factor in winning viewers.
When a station's numbers begin to slip, there is often a quick change at the anchor desk. Likewise, when a popular anchor becomes available come contract time, a high-stakes bidding war usually ensues.
"There are so many more places to go (for news)," said KABC General Manager Arnold J. Kleiner. "In 1998, it is hard to build and maintain loyalty to news anchors, sportscasters and weathermen. There are 68 anchors in Los Angeles. That is a lot of people to remember."
One reason why Paul Moyer reportedly earns $2 million a year at KNBC is that he has become a brand name in Los Angeles. To help boost its ratings, KCBS shelled out $1 million a year to lure news anchor Ann Martin away from KABC, where she had become a star.
Undaunted, KABC replaced Martin with Lisa McRee whose performance was so strong that she became host of ABC's "Good Morning America."
"This is the most competitive market in the world," said Carole Black, the general manager of KNBC. "You have one more VHF station (than in New York) and there is cable news, two Spanish language stations and strong independents."
And the competition, especially from cable, has had its effects on news viewing. Two decades ago, KABC was No. 1 at 11 p.m. with a 12 household rating for the May 1978 sweeps. Last May, KABC was second with a 7 rating while the leader, KNBC, drew a 10 rating. KCBS, which has been third for many years, had a 7 rating in 1978 and dropped to a 6 rating last May.
While station executives point out that the number of viewers today is larger than those watching news 20 years ago, the percentage of news viewers is drifting away to other media, much as is happening with network programming.
How do they get them back?
One way, of course, is during sweeps months November, February, May and July. During these periods, when ratings are measured, local stations air hype-filled special reports often involving sex and sensationalism.
Another technique is to go live, especially by helicopter. Choppers help stations generate live images of freeway chases and crashes, brush fires, hostage situations and the occasional celebrity wedding.
"They're basically flying newsrooms," said Alan Purwin, president of Helinet Aviation, a company based at Van Nuys Airport that leases helicopters to five local stations.
A top-of-the-line helicopter costs Purwin about $1 million, not counting about $600,000 to equip the choppers with the electronics needed to make them airborne TV studios. Purwin said his lease rates range from $500 to $700 an hour.
Noyes said the increased dependence on helicopters is a major factor in the decline in the quality of local news coverage.
"They had to cut a lot of reporters to make room for the helicopter," he said. "That's a major, major expense in Los Angeles."
But KNBC's Black says choppers are needed in a market like L.A.
"We have 4,000 square miles for our signal," Black said. "There are 15 million people in this area from way past Ventura to near San Diego. A helicopter is one of the most effective ways of covering a story."
It's also a calculated way of covering a story and many in the industry say it reflects the nature of Los Angeles.
In the 1980s, KCBS commissioned a study of news viewing here. "We found that people don't identify with living in Los Angeles," said a former station executive. "There is no allegiance to the city as a mythical, political or geographic place like New York or Chicago or Boston. There is no vital center here. Viewers identified with their jobs or their recreational activities."
Those findings, he said, led to a news menu focused on emotional subjects like crime, sex and fear. "That was the common denominator," he said. "In a sense, there was no real news like you would have in other big cities."
In recent years, there's been some effort to change that formula by introducing "good news" and "news you can use" features. But ultimately, how well a station does might have little to do with the news programming whether thoughtful or sensational.
KNBC is helped in its late news ratings, for example, because of NBC's prime-time clout, especially on Thursdays, when the news follows "ER," TV's No. 1 drama.
KTLA-TV Channel 5 anchorman Hal Fishman was the king of independent news for more than a decade because his newscast was the best in its time slot at 10 p.m., drawing viewers who didn't want to stay up until 11 p.m. But KTLA's ratings have suffered lately because of rivals like Fox-owned KTTV-TV Channel 11, which bolstered its news operation and has a strong lead-in from Fox's prime-time programming.
USC Journalism professor Joe Saltzman, a former producer at KNXT-TV (the forerunner to KCBS), thinks it's is time for local stations to revamp the way news is being done in the city. Otherwise, audience erosion will accelerate.
"Don't go to the audience to create news," he said. "That's doing it ass backwards. Create news that nobody can afford not to watch. The only way to do that is put news in the hands of journalists, not consultants. Business people don't know what news is."
But David Smith, president of Magid Entertainment, a division of Frank Magid & Associates Inc., a news-industry consulting firm, predicted that business will go on as usual and that newscasts throughout the country will increasingly resemble the nightly news in Los Angeles.
Contributing reporter R.W. Greene provided additional reporting.
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