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Friday, May 20, 2022

Planned Spontaneity at Top Local A.M. News Program

It’s a few minutes before 7 a.m., and the set is abuzz with the last-minute scramble before airtime. A makeup artist powders “KTLA Morning News” anchorwoman Barbara Beck, while entertainment reporter Sam Rubin finishes up a Hollywood report for WGN, KTLA’s sister station in Chicago.

The KTLA-TV Channel 5 breakfast club is open for business.

What will unfold over the next two hours is a blend of hard news, soft news, weather, sports, traffic reports and laughing chatter.

Lots of laughing chatter.

To the viewer, much of what unfolds seems to be spontaneous. But while the ad-libs and the breaking news are spur-of-the-moment, the core of the broadcast isn’t. Weeks before last Monday’s show appeared on the air, segments and guests had been booked.

Outside Executive Producer Marcia Brandwynne’s office is a giant storyboard listing upcoming segments and guests into the month of December. Nothing is left to chance except for breaking news, the litmus test for how well a newscast and its staff respond to the unexpected.

On Monday, like every day, most of the on-air staff have been up for hours getting ready for the broadcast. And it’s not always easy being chipper in the morning. “We don’t allow each other the luxury of having a bad show,” Beck says. “It’s like I have three big brothers. They tell you to buck up.”

Brandwynne, a former Channel 2 anchorwoman when the station was called KNXT, has been up since 4:30 a.m. reading newspapers and surfing the Internet. Brandwynne, who also ran Carol Burnett’s production company, has reinvented herself as a news producer and her tinkering is paying off.

Tease, tease, tease

The “KTLA Morning News” is ahead of arch-rival, KTTV-TV Channel 11’s “Good Day L.A.,” in the ratings during the November sweeps. It’s also well ahead of CBS’s “The Early Show” with Bryant Gumble, but slightly behind NBC’s “Today Show” and well behind ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Ratings matter. About $40 million is wagered by advertisers in the 5 a.m. to 9 a. m. morning news block in Los Angeles.

But that’s for the bean counters back in Chicago, where KTLA’s owner, Tribune Broadcasting, operates its media empire of newspapers, radio and TV stations. What’s on the mind of everyone at Channel 5 now is getting through the next two hours.

“Tease, tease, tease,” Brandwynne says, looking at Rubin, whom she calls “the tease king” for his ability to tantalize an audience to stay tuned.

The affable Rubin is telling the audience to hold on for his interview with Oscar winner Tom Hanks about his new film, “The Green Mile,” a Death Row drama. The tape will be shown later in the broadcast.

During the show, Brandwynne spends much of her time in the control room where she keeps an eye on her show and rival KTTV, whose broadcast is showing on a small color monitor.

“I want to make sure they don’t have any breaking news,” she says.

Breaking news is the only variable in the KTLA morning show’s well-structured agenda.

Anything can happen and often does, which is why helicopters have become so important they can quickly get to the scene of a chase, accident or police incident and provide footage that would otherwise be impossible to tape.

The big story for the day is the high winds that ripped through Los Angeles the day before. Reporter Eric Spillman is on the streets of the San Fernando Valley showing the results of the powerful storm and its damage.

Brandwynne looks at her monitor and sees that KTTV is also running a story about the storm. It has a catchy headline, “Wild Winds.”

“We offer local, national and international news, but we stress what is going on in the Los Angeles area,” Brandwynne says. “We diminish crime unless there is a bigger reason behind an incident.”

Brandwynne looks up at Rubin, who is still delivering his Hollywood report. “He’s not a reporter,” she says. “He is a columnist.”

Straight doesn’t sell

Only a few years ago, Brandwynne, who comes from a hard news background, might have winced at the irreverence and frivolity displayed during her morning broadcast. Not now. Nobody is trying a straight broadcast in the morning, network or local, for the simple reason that they don’t get ratings.

“I’m sure somebody can do it,” she said. “But we try to take the anxiety out of getting up. We are much straighter from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m.”

News Director Jeff Wald brought in Brandwynne to run the morning show because he thought it had lost its direction. It had also been dropping in the ratings. “The spontaneity seemed contrived,” he said. “They were clinging to the past, and that’s dangerous.”

One of his goals was to stay away from what he calls “inside baseball” stories, reports that appeal to a narrow viewership. He also didn’t want reporters and anchors to ad lib about their own personal lives.

“I don’t care what Sam (Rubin) or anyone else did on the weekend,” Wald said.

After Rubin finishes up, it’s time for financial reporter Bob McCormick, who also does radio reports for KNX-AM 1070. He reports on Wall Street trading during the early hours.

The control room at KTLA is remarkably quiet. Will Surratt, the boss of the technical side of the broadcast, has to get ready for live shot featuring reporter Gayle Anderson, who will be doing a feature on Hollywood French Fries, a Westwood restaurant co-owned by actor Danny Glover.

Surratt is checking the audio and video feeds coming from the news van in Westwood. When Anderson comes up, some good news hits the control room. KTLA got a 4.2 rating on Friday, Nov. 19. KTTV got a 3.2.

“This is a happy morning,” Brandwynne says.

Show biz stuff

At 8 a.m., the newscast takes a different twist. It will tilt toward women viewers as men depart for work and housewives take control of the TV set. “At 7:50 a.m. it’s men and women,” Surratt explains. “By 8 a.m. it skews to females, especially after 8:30 a.m.”

The well-planned agenda, however, is suddenly shaken. Two men were shot in the Hyde Park section of Los Angeles. It’s breaking news. The Channel 5 helicopter hovers over the scene, with Jennifer York reporting on what she can see. Outside the control room, staffers at the news desk are manning the phones, trying to learn more from police sources.

“Helicopters have become important because of the size of L.A.,” Brandwynne says. “I call this ‘trolling news.’ People want to see news as it happens. That’s what car chases are all about. People want to see news without a filter.”

Afterward, it’s time to air Rubin’s segment with Tom Hanks, who clearly has fun kidding with Rubin even saying that he whizzes past KTTV in the morning to stop for a moment and look at the “cleavage” before moving on to KTLA. The jibe warms the staff. KTLA staffers are critical of the sexual jokes their rival uses in its morning show, especially those tossed by weathercaster Jillian Barberie.

There’s an update on the Hyde Park shooting. It appears the victims were two cousins, but it is still not known if the shootings were gang-related.

The “Morning News” ends with a “Mindbender” quiz segment by weatherman Mark Kriski about where to put a dinner napkin after a meal. Is it on your plate, Kriski asks, or on your chair or by the side of your plate? The correct answer is, the side of your plate.

Planning sessions

About an hour after the newscast, Brandwynne convenes a pitch meeting in which upcoming stories are assigned and assessed. On this particular morning, Brandwynne is ailing with laryngitis. She quickly begins a rundown for the next day’s show. One idea is a weekly segment on a 20-minute workout that would help viewers stay in shape.

Anchor Carlos Amezcua likes the idea and wants to do the segment. But now he’s heading to Warner Bros. in Burbank to do a series of interviews with the stars of a “Dukes of Hazzard” TV reunion movie.

For many years, Amezcua played it straight as a newsman, working for CBS, CNN and NBC. But like most of the on-air staff at KTLA, he’s quick to defend the frivolity of the morning broadcast.

“I want people to go off to work with the information they need, and we’ve won Emmys for serious news, like our coverage of earthquakes. But I think it is important for people to smile,” he says.

During the pitch meeting, one of the staffers suggests a story on a bra company in the San Fernando Valley that custom-tailors the undergarments for its customers. The women in the meeting like the idea.

Brandwynne says she is worried about December and January. It’s a slow period for news. That means, she says, “more stars and celebrities. The show needs A-lists.”

Jayne Shayne, supervising segment producer, said there is an emphasis in the capital of the entertainment industry to get stars for morning television shows.

“The bigger the better, especially when they have a buzz around them and not just when they are promoting something,” she explains. “We try to be proactive because they fit into the uniqueness of our show. The industry watches our show.”

Shayne says the key to cracking the A-list has been the show’s spontaneity.

“The rest of the shows are predictable,” she says. “You know exactly what is going to happen on the ‘Today Show.’ Here, you get to play.”

More ideas flow at the story meeting. Stories about the holidays, gift giving and sex are mentioned, like a segment on 10 ways to improve your love life. Brandwynne will only go along if they can get Dr. Ruth. “She makes talking about sex OK,” Brandwynne says.

Someone suggests a story about a school for Santa Clauses for Christmas. Everybody thinks Kriski, who is known for his lighter segments, would be the right person to do the report. Kriski begs off. He doesn’t like Christmas.

John Reardon, general manager of KTLA, said the morning newscast is an extremely important element to the long-term health of the station, especially in a market as competitive as Los Angeles.

“It is the local identification with L.A.,” he said. “It is the local angle. It brings a lot of power to the station’s recognition and makes it part of the community. Localism is what makes it different from the networks.”

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