Two days after the May sweeps ended, the only Hispanic general manager of an English-language L.A. television station abruptly resigned, raising concern among activists who have been trying for years to raise the profile of Latinos in the local media.
Diana L. Vargas, general manager of KTTV-TV Channel 11, left her post for undisclosed reasons. Station officials declined comment, and the 12-year veteran of the Fox Broadcasting Co.-owned station was on vacation and unavailable for comment last week. Her last day is officially June 30.
"You have a Latino who was in a very visible position, and then all of a sudden she isn't there. The question is why," said Alex Nogales, president of the Los Angeles-based watchdog group, the Hispanic Media Coalition. "Was she incompetent or terminated for other reasons, or tired of the petty politics, or did she just run out of gas?"
Details about Vargas' departure remained sketchy late last week except that she resigned "to pursue other professional interests," according to a statement issued by the station.
"We have a terrific team here at Fox 11 and leaving them has been the most difficult part of my decision, along with not picking up the telephone while watching our newscasts to give immediate feedback (to news producers)," Vargas said in a prepared statement.
Vargas was named vice president and general manager of KTTV in 1997. Before that, she headed the station's sales division.
One local agent for news talent blamed her departure on the poor performance of KTTV and pressure from senior management within the Fox TV stations division for more profits.
"All of Fox's stations make money," the source said. "But the perception in the marketplace is that they should be making more money."
Fox's owned-and-operated stations division, which is known as a hard-driving operation, is headquartered at Channel 11's offices in West L.A., creating a fishbowl effect for local managers.
Fox and other media companies do not break out the profitability of their individual TV stations, but these outlets are generally considered much more profitable than TV networks. KTTV, however, has been falling behind.
A recent survey of ad revenues in the Los Angeles market by accounting giant Ernst & Young reported that KTTV dropped to No. 6 in local ad revenues during the first quarter. Usually, KTTV vies with KTLA-TV Channel 5 for third or fourth place.
In the most recent May sweeps, KTTV's 10 p.m. weekday newscast drew a 3.8 Nielsen rating, compared to 4.0 for its archrival KTLA. Stations use Monday-through-Friday sweeps ratings to set their upcoming ad rates.
A year ago, KTTV had a 5.2 rating for its 10 p.m. news, and KTLA trailed with a 5.0. But the two stations have both suffered from ratings declines in the shows that precede the news, known as the "lead-ins" the Fox network is down 16 percent this year. With fewer viewers watching the prime-time programming, less stick around to watch the news.
Meanwhile, in the 7-9 o'clock morning news, KTLA pulled a 3.7 rating, up from a 3.0 rating a year ago and second only to KABC-TV Channel 7's 3.9 rating for "Good Morning America." KTTV's "Good Day L.A." drew a 3.0 rating up from a 2.9 a year ago, but still not as impressive a gain as KTLA's.
"It's like baseball," said Julio Moran, executive director of the California Chicano News Media Association, who honored Vargas at a dinner after she was appointed KTTV's general manager. "As long as the manager continues to win, they keep their jobs. They (KTTV managers) are in a tough battle with KTLA, and my assumption is this was part of (the reason for Vargas' departure). General managers are the victims of ratings."
Moran expressed disappointment about Vargas leaving the station, but his concern is tempered by the fact that Jose Rios remains Channel 11's news director and is sensitive to the needs of Latino viewers.
"He will have more of an impact than the general manager, and I am hopeful that whoever (replaces Vargas) will listen to him and what he wants to put on the news," Moran said.
Station insiders maintain that Vargas was not forced out of her post despite the pressures to maintain ratings and profits. "She could have stayed," one staffer said. "She was just tired and is ready for a change. She had a very tough job."
The National Hispanic Media Coalition's Nogales said Vargas will be missed.
"It was a shame that she was the only one (Latina managing an English-language station) in Los Angeles," he said. "It takes away a voice that speaks for our concerns, especially at a time when network TV is ignoring the preponderance of Latinos and other minorities. It will be hard for us now. There is a lack of her voice in the marketplace."
Nogales hopes Fox officials will replace Vargas with another Latina or Latino, especially because it would be good for business in Los Angeles.
"Fox management should take a good hard look at where the future is," he said. "Latinos make up 44 percent of the population in Los Angeles County and 31 percent in Orange County, and those numbers are growing and they are from the old (1990) census. No one can tell me that a non-Latino can do a better job in dealing with the sensitivities of our community. It makes good business sense to get someone sensitive to these issues."
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