In a hushed studio beneath a forest of lights, Fritz Coleman stands, gesturing broadly.
On television, it appears that the KNBC-TV Channel 4 weatherman is pointing out areas of high and low pressure where they are headed and whence they came.
Coleman does his slow-motion dance on a sky blue, moveable platform about eight feet square that slopes upward and turns into a plain wall that serves as his backdrop. As he gestures, he watches small monitors mounted at either end of the platform that let him know where he stands relative to the images that seem to move behind him.
"It's controlled chaos here," said anchor Colleen Williams. "It all looks seamless on TV, but it doesn't feel that way to us. When I'm on the set, I may have a producer and a director both talking in my ear at once."
It's a typical day in the life of a local TV news operation in this case, the highest-rated news station in town.
"I haven't actually had a conversation with my husband since Tuesday," said News Director Nancy Bauer-Gonzales. "I've left him voicemail, but I haven't actually conversed with him." Her husband is KCAL-TV Channel 9 news anchor David Gonzales; together they have a 9-month-old son.
Things are less frantic in the office of KNBC General Manager Carole Black, a stylish woman in a pink suit and navy shirt who is preparing for a biannual budget presentation she gives to representatives from the network station group. She is in charge not only of the newscast, but of the entire station, including sales, marketing, operations, engineering and finance.
It's going to be a challenging year. "Seinfeld" has evaporated from the strong prime-time lineup, NBC lost out on the NFL, and its popular drama "ER" is becoming "very expensive, at $13 million an episode," said Black. "We've had to figure out how we can have higher revenues and get profits up. So we're doing a little belt tightening. We have to be strategic in how we spend our money."
Owned-and-operated stations are big profit centers for the networks, and Channel 4 is very important to NBC generating more revenues than any other NBC station, except WNBC in New York.
"There are seven VHF stations in Los Angeles, so the money is split up between more people," Black said.
Black's other concerns for the day include meeting with Bauer-Gonzales to discuss contracts that are coming up for renewal.
Bauer-Gonzales is in charge of running the day-to-day news operations. On this particular Friday, a "casual" day, Bauer-Gonzales looks more like a crew member than a station executive presiding over the newsroom in a pair of sneakers, white jeans and black T-shirt.
She enjoys the literal and proverbial corner office, complete with a door she can close by remote control, and six television sets, each tuned to a different local station. At 3:45 p.m., Rosie O'Donnell is on the KNBC screen, and regularly scheduled shows appear on three other sets. Channel 2 has interrupted its regularly scheduled program with footage of a Malibu fire.
"Channel 2 has no programming anyway," Bauer-Gonzales said of the CBS station, whose local newscast ranks third. "Rosie O'Donnell has a huge audience. We would think long and hard about taking time away from her for a fire, unless it's a really good fire. Right now, no houses are burning. If a house was burning I'd jump in, if there was some reason people needed to know."
Bauer-Gonzales' day starts at 5:15 a.m. She says she tries to be out of the shower by 5:30, so she can watch KNBC's "Today in L.A." "Sometimes I don't make it," she says, "which is why I have a TV in the bathroom, a glass shower stall, and a (TV audio) speaker in the shower."
Every evening, the nighttime executive producer leaves a five-minute message on her voicemail at the office, telling her how the newscast went. She dials it up on her cell phone and listens to it on the way to work. The first thing she does upon arriving at the station is check the ratings. "It's really an illness," she explains, "because we're looking for trends over time, not day to day."
By the time she arrives for the 8:30 a.m. editorial meeting, Bauer-Gonzales has listened to the news on the radio, read several local papers and checked the local and national wires.
There is another meeting at noon, when the evening news (which airs from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.) is formatted. "That's two and a half hours of programming," she said. "Someone who is watching at 4:45 is also watching at 5:05, so we take great pains not to repeat the news."
Key personnel meet in a small conference area dubbed "the pit. "Reporters are calling in, telling us what they've got, and we say, 'You're live, you're the lead, you're probably second' (to various reporters)," she said.
Across the way, a desk-filled area is home to the producers and writers who churn through information from the newswires, newspapers and other sources, and bang out copy for the anchors to read from teleprompters. The assignment desk the newsroom's dispatch center is also located there, near the seismograph. The assignment manager handles the logistics of when and where to send reporters and crews.
In the nearby "routing room," technicians watch over the quality of the newscast images. During the 6 p.m. newscast, a wall of small TV monitors shows the various feeds. On one, reporter Laurel Erickson frowns and fixes her earpiece while waiting to go live on the air.
Other monitors show feeds from stationary cameras installed around the L.A. area: the "Orange crush" freeway interchange, Big Bear and a dozen other locations throughout Southern California.
Meanwhile, another TV displays images of a fire burning in Malibu, supplied by a helicopter crew. The images are being shown live on the 6 p.m. newscast.
"Here we go, news chopper four," says a woman on a specially rigged telephone. "You're in pictures."
The image starts to turn fuzzy, so she switches over to a pre-recorded tape of the fire. "We're in tape, chopper four, we're in tape," she says.
The image clears up, and the technician switches back to live feed. "You're back, chopper four," she says.
Downstairs from the newsroom, through passageways and past other sound stages, is "the booth" where News Producer Rob Feldmen, Director Benny Dominguez and Assistant Director Doug Cornish sit at a long bay facing a wall of small television sets.
Cornish watches over a teleprompter, monitoring the timing of the show, while Dominguez stands like a conductor, orchestrating the shots.
"Stand by," Dominguez says into a headset, addressing himself to a reporter in the field waiting to do her segment. Dominguez watches her on one of the many television monitors.
After a pause: "Go," he says.
She's live on television, yet she doesn't begin her report.
"Speak. It's you," Dominguez tells her. She gives a little start and launches into her story. Dominguez lifts his eyes heavenward and shakes his head.
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