Fox and CBS Pull the Switcheroo Musical Affiliates

KEYE Channel 42

At 33, Dennis Upah looks like a tall kid with business skills. His wholehearted Midwestern demeanor belies his bigwig role in turning a bare-bones Fox station in North Austin into a multi-million-dollar CBS affiliate. Upah's 6'3" frame moves swiftly and purposefully across the station's empty parking lot to show visitors where a 7,000 square-foot expansion project will be the site of KEYE's two-story, state-of-the-art news department.

Inside the building, Upah points to a blue and purple color scheme already in place through most of the offices. The set, he says, is a made-in-Hollywood affair featuring a 360-degree rotating desk, a two-story newsroom backdrop and a 14-foot tall, three-dimensional Austin cityscape. All of this Austin theme scheme is carried over into the station's "image song," recorded by local musicians.

"People are going to see from day one that we have a look, a sound, even a name that is distinctly Austin," Upah promises. Upah moved to Austin this year from an NBC-affiliated station in Peoria, Illinois, a Granite Broadcasting-owned station where he started his career in 1982. Six years later, at the age of 27, Upah became general manager. Age, says Upah, is an important factor in television. "The whole industry is shifting to a younger market," he says.

Upah is glad that CBS, long a draw for the older set, is starting to sit up and take notice of younger viewers. With low ratings, and having lost eight local CBS affiliates to the ravenous Fox in the last year, CBS was forced to take serious action on its new fall lineup, dumping a dozen prime-time series and replacing them with shows designed to attract a younger viewing audience, the darling of advertisers. CBS had already suffered a big drain on ad revenue as a result of losing its NFL football games to Fox.

So in September on CBS, Mom and Dad will be catching Angela Lansbury's Murder She Wrote on Thursdays instead of Sundays. The network moved the series from its ancient Sunday night slot to make room for two half-hour sitcoms - Cybill and Almost Perfect.

And Upah is cheerfully doing his part to reel in the young on the local side. He's taking two highly-rated syndicated talk hosts with him to CBS - Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones. Lake, who has risen to cult status among 18- to-34-year-olds, will appear at 3pm, followed by Jones at 4pm.

Holding on to the same viewers for the 5pm news will be trickier, so Channel 42 will present stories in rapid-fire sucessesion with co-anchors Shaun Robinson, a freelance TV journalist from Milwaukee, and Daniel Plante, a former Channel 7 reporter who's returning to Austin from Omaha.

Recognizing that Channel 42, as the newest news team in town, won't be an overnight success, CBS has invested a "substantial amount" of money into the station's promotional gimmicks and TV commercials that have a slew of CBS stars - Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown, Fran Drescher of The Nanny, and Hector Elizando of Chicago Hope, to name a few - pushing the heck out of Channel 42. The local TV rumor mill has put the CBS investment for promotions at $1 million, but Upah won't name an amount.

Network stars promoting local station affiliates is nothing new, but Channel 42 has worked in an unprecedented promotional ploy that has viewers vying for a $250,000 house built by Palmer Homes on the far fringes of Austin in Georgetown. When a new TV station tries to squeeze into the local market with a home giveaway, one is tempted to ask the age-old question: Is that all there is?

Maybe so. But there's at least enough excitement to draw one familiar face back to television. Neal Spelce, former longtime anchor for KTBC Channel 7, has signed on as Channel 42's main anchor during the 6 and 10pm newscasts with Terri Chappell, a weekend anchor for cable television's Travel Channel in San Francisco. Spelce left KTBC in March, joined the public relations firm of Staats, Falkenberg & Partners, and pursued his interests in Ninth Wave Productions, a company he heads which produces and markets syndicated news segments to stations nationwide.

Spelce, who also publishes a decidedly pro-business newsletter called Neal Spelce Austin Letter, has come under criticism in the past for his profit-making interests outside of journalism, involving political consulting work. But Channel 42 officials and Spelce have promised there won't be any conflicts of interest. Spelce adds that he's giving up political consulting and will limit his association with the public relations firm. Spelce will, however, continue his work with Ninth Wave, and has said all along that he would accept another anchor spot with flexible schedule conditions worked into the contract.

But despite his name and face recognition from over 20 years in the TV news business, no ratings miracle can be expected from Spelce's presence. "Building an audience is a long-term process, so I don't expect the station to be an overnight success," admits Spelce. He denies that he left Channel 7 in a huff over the station's alignment with Fox.

"I didn't leave there in anger and I didn't leave there because of Fox. I thoroughly loved what I was doing," he says. "But I had a window in my contract that allowed me to leave on January 15. The 15th was on a Sunday, so I went in to see Ron Klayman [former Channel 7 general manger] - it was Friday the 13th. I went in and turned in my notice. He asked me if I'd be willing to work through the February ratings period. I agreed to stay and he said, `Let's keep it quiet so there won't be any rumors'."

Will the viewers' demonstrated trust in Spelce carry over to the rest of the news team? Jeff Godlis, the KEYE news director charged with putting together the station's first news department, says it will. An intense, wiry fellow with dark hair and eyes, Godlis picked his staff after viewing stacks of close to 1,000 demo tapes.

The fact that many of the hires are from out of town is not an issue that will stand in the way of getting the story, he says, particularly when two key decision-makers hail from competing stations. Michael Schneider, assignments editor at KTBC, is taking over the same job at KEYE. And Melanie Cox left a producing job at KVUE Channel 24 to become KEYE's executive producer. Another KTBC defector is photographer Robert Paniagua.

"The people we're hiring are such good journalists," says Godlis, who spent 17 years in the TV news business on the West Coast before moving to Austin. "We're not hiring rookies, we're hiring experienced journalists."

Promotional glitz aside, Godlis says hard news will be taken seriously, with 10 reporters on the street every day. "With breaking news, we'll be throwing every resource we have into a story. I call it kitchen-sinking the story because I throw everything but the kitchen sink into it," he says.

Godlis is hard pressed to hypothesize on how his news team would have covered any recent local events, however. "I'm at a disadvantage here because I'm new," he says. On a broader scale, though, he points to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by way of example. "I would have sent a crew there for coverage morning, noon, and night.

"The people I'm hiring will be able to provide in-depth, informative news," Godlis says. "These will be people-oriented stories. Instead of explaining the process of politics, we'll explain the result of politics."

One advantage the Channel 42 newcomers have over other news stations is that they have the entire month of June to dig up stories before their first broadcast on July 2. New hire Remi Barron, from KETK-TV in Tyler, recognized for his investigative reports on toxic waste dumping, is on investigative assignment, as is consumer reporter Ursula Lipari, who moved to Austin from a station in Portland, Maine.

Sportscaster Andy Liscano joins KEYE from KVOR-TV in Sacramento, California, and weather veteran Cliff Morrison moves here from a Denver TV station. Morrison's claim to fame is substituting for Willard Scott on the Today Show.

KEYE's morning news show will air from 5:30-7am with co-anchors Rosinda Rios and Christine Fletcher, which could present a refreshing departure from the traditional male-female anchor team. The morning show will feature a mixture of hard news and syndicated feature programs.

Part of KEYE's recruiting efforts will focus on African-American and Hispanic talent, as part of Granite Broadcasting's pledge to minorities in the broadcasting field. Granite, which owns nine stations nationwide, is an African-American-owned company. It has built a reputation for shaping its news teams to reflect the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of the city, says Mark Lowery, senior editor of Black Enterprise magazine, which named Granite the "company of the year" in its June edition featuring the top 100 fastest-growing black-owned companies (Granite ranked 18th).

At the same time, says Lowery, Granite's management style is laissez faire, leaving local management to run the stations the way they see fit.

Tom Becker, entertainment editor for California's Fresno Bee, agreed that Granite has issued few corporate directives on newsroom management at KSEE-TV, an NBC affiliate Granite acquired two years ago. "They haven't made drastic changes, other than a new set," Becker said. "They did a new set but they still have the same anchors that were there when they came in." As for news coverage, Becker said the station has a "pretty aggressive" news staff. "They like to use the team approach of ganging up on a story," he said.

With four news stations in town, the Granite-owned KSEE generally ranks in the number two or three viewing spot, Becker added.

KTBC Channel 7

At KTBC Channel 7, the news department is in overdrive. By the time it leaves CBS, 16 new people will have fleshed out the news department as the station moves into expanded news segments to cover for the lack of a national newscast from Fox. Few stations have seen as many transformations as Channel 7, which has had three different owners in 18 months.

Along with new hires, expanded coverage and programming, comes some pain under the knife. Reshuffling, firings, and resignations - all are part of the territory in TV's changing landscape. In fact, it's hard to keep up with Channel 7's primetime anchors of late. The longtime duo of Neal Spelce and Stephanie Williams is out the door. Williams, who is six months pregnant, wanted a relaxed schedule to avoid a repeat of her last pregnancy that rendered her bed-ridden for three months. But easing up on work schedules is not in the game plan at Channel 7 these days, so Williams left a month before her contract expired at the end of July. She says there are no hard feelings. But the fact that Channel 7 let Williams out of her non-compete clause leaves room for speculation that she might show up somewhere else.

Then Susan Rodman, the 5pm anchor who came to Austin a year ago with hopes of landing a 6 and 10pm anchor position, was dropped after market research revealed that, for one reason or another, viewers didn't much care for her. Channel 7 handed her the rest of her annual salary on her way out the door.

As the dust settles, the lineup looks like this: the 6-8am morning news program and the noon half-hour newscast will feature regular morning anchor Joe Bickette and newcomer Lisa Leigh, a University of Texas graduate who returned to Austin from Monterey, California; the 5pm and 6pm newscasts will feature Paige Gressett, moved from the early morning Texas Breakfast Club program, and newcomer Tony Lopez from Fresno, California; former weekend anchor Stephanie Rochon has been promoted to co-anchor the 5:30 and 10pm slots with Dick Ellis, who moved from Channel 7 to Channel 24 and is now back at Channel 7; and newcomers Kathleen Jennings from Nacogdoches and Bill Burr out of Timmonsville, North Carolina, will serve as the weekend anchors. Veteran sports and weather anchors Dave Cody and Troy Kimmel will stay on.

With no 5-5:30pm national news slot from the mother network, KTBC will air three half-hour, back-to-back newscasts, although much of the 5pm slot will be devoted to world and national news, with video "feeds" provided by broadcast news organizations.

"We'll be relying more on CNN feed after we move to Fox," says Deborah York, the news director who has managed to keep her job through three station owners (rare in this business). "And that's a good thing, because research tells us that when viewers are asked who provides the best network news, the answer is CNN."

The station also will subscribe to broadcast reports from the Associated Press and from Reuters, the latter of which grew out of a deal with Fox as the Murdoch company makes good on its news network dream.

KTBC will also team up with Fox stations in San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston to form a regional network system, York added.

Local news coverage will proceed on the same hard news track, York said. "We've been doing hard news and will continue to do hard news. And as we broaden our newscasts, we're making sure everybody on staff knows what hard news is - it's serious journalism that's presented in a straightforward, compelling matter."

York, 41, who holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, is quick to point out that she got her start in print journalism in Santa Barbara, California before she moved into television. She came to Austin in August 1993 from Tyler, where she was news director of KETK for two years.

After former general manager Ron Klayman got the axe from New World in April, York thought she might be next. "I realized that was a possibility because it happens in this industry," she says. Klayman was replaced by Craig Millar, whom New World sent in from Birmingham, Alabama, to strengthen the troops and expand the news format.

Throughout the transition from CBS to Fox, it's the longtime viewers who'll be more inclined to wax nostalgic over Channel 7 breaking it off with CBS after more than 40 years. The local affiliate, founded by the family of Lyndon Baines Johnson, was Austin's only television station for several years. The station first blinked awake in living rooms across town on Thanksgiving Day 1952 with a University of Texas-Texas A&M football game. Odd for such a station to be switching identities with the newest kid on the block; KEYE first went on the air in 1983.

But Spelce, the anchor who will renew his relationship with CBS after a four-month hiatus, says most of the Channel 7 news staff hasn't been there long enough to get worked up about the split from CBS. "It's not a life or death situation," he says.

But Channel 7 is likely to slip in the ratings once it moves to Fox, which may come as a blow considering the station has enjoyed the number one and number two position for virtually its entire existence.

"Give us a year," says Millar. "That's when you'll really be able to see a difference."

Meanwhile, Millar says, the station has no immediate plants to expand its final newscast beyond the regular 30-minute newscast at 10pm Meanwhile, the 9pm slot, the lead-in hour for TV news stations, will be filled by an action adventure show during the summer and, in the fall, by reruns of The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

Everybody Else

The ABC and NBC affiliates - KVUE Channel 24 and KXAN-36, respectively - will stand put and play up the stability factor in their bid for viewers. But in the face of these changes, both are making preparations of their own to stay in the game.

Not by coincidence, the big switch will take place during the July sweeps, a highly concentrated ratings period used by local TV stations to set advertising rates. The competition is likely to be fierce.

"Both of us are likely to gain an audience from all the changes," says Jane Wallace, general manager of Channel 36, which ranks third and last in local news ratings. "Now we'll have an opportunity to show more people what we already feel is the best darn news program in the marketplace."

KVUE viewers, meanwhile, are still trying to focus on the Judy Maggio/Bob Karstens match-up that replaced the popular duos of Maggio/Dick Ellis, and Maggio/Ron Oliveira, who left to run independent station KNVA (see box). Ardyth Diercks, KVUE general manager, said that aside from minor tune-ups here and there, no major overhauls are planned. That's good news coming from a station that had a 65% turnover in staff last year.

To be sure, local television stations are not exactly paragons of stability. But with the news pie portions getting smaller and more reporters scratching for stories, viewers might be provided with not only more news coverage but more insight and scrutiny. If these changes truly mean not just more news, but better news, we all have reason to celebrate.

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