Media Watch: KXAN Bucks the Wave: Covers the News

KXAN bucks the wave – covers the news

KXAN's Jenny Hoff interviews House Speaker Joe Straus.
KXAN's Jenny Hoff interviews House Speaker Joe Straus.

Over the years a long list of once-common features has disappeared from local TV news, staples of the business that faded into the oblivion of a different era. Local documentaries, on-set commentaries, feature reporters, and cartoonish sports announcers are among the long forgotten dinosaurs, quaint reminders of a distant past when television news was a more creative enterprise. Technology has brought infinite ways for stations to report that it's raining outside, but in terms of programming, something more has definitely been lost.

Among the casualties is the weekly "issues" talk show, the opportunity for stern TV news professionals to address the local dramas of the day with sweaty local bureaucrats and policy wonks. They used to gather on poorly lit sets with camera operators of questionable skills and banter for half an hour about sewage rates and county elections, in many cases providing viewers with their only chance to hear "news makers" speak outside the usual 12-second sound bites.

These days the weekly talk show is a mountain too high for most local TV news operations. Not long after the government lifted requirements for public affairs programming, the network affiliates dropped the shows, preferring to devote late-night and early morning hours to infomercials for really cool hamburger grills and can't-miss real estate sales opportunities.

In that context, KXAN's new weekly half-hour show devoted to the Legislature is a radical move. It's one of a kind, a trailblazer. The station will actually focus a half hour every Sunday morning, from 9:30 to 10am, to Session '09 In-Depth, featuring interviews and roundtable discussions.

At its basic level, the station is simply setting aside a half hour of its usual Sunday morning news hour for Lege talk. The show itself is typically dorky, featuring anchor Jenny Hoff breathlessly asking questions of legislators, followed by a panel discussion with Lege wonks such as Ross Ramsey, the editor of Texas Weekly. And Hoff is not exactly a probing interviewer. Last Sunday she asked Gov. Rick Perry, "What's your take?" on the economy – then she let him give an uninterrupted campaign speech for almost three minutes.

But at least KXAN is trying. Rival KVUE's idea of a weekly Sunday morning Lege segment is "Sundays With the Senator," which consists of a few minutes of Sen. Kirk Watson offering his "take" on recent events. (Sample interrogation from KVUE reporter Elise Hu: "Tell us what happened this week.") And CBS affiliate KEYE prepared for the legislative session by laying off veteran political reporter Keith Elkins.

KXAN's baby-steps effort bucks the trend: actually upgrading on-air Lege coverage at a time when most media organizations are slashing their Capitol presence. Most recently the Fort Worth Star-Telegram cut its Austin bureau from four people to one. And public station KLRU could no longer muster support for Special Sessions, Paul Stekler's award-winning show covering the Legislature, which vanished this session. ("Just too hard to find funding for it," Stekler said in an e-mail to the Chronicle's Lee Nichols.)

In addition to the half hour focused on the Lege, last week KXAN added longtime Austin-based Dallas Morning News reporter Karen Brooks as executive producer of its online efforts. Brooks is a Lege veteran and a fine reporter who should help bulk up the increasingly competitive online Capitol coverage. Hoff, KVUE's Hu, and the Austin American-Statesman and Austin Chronicle reporters are all maintaining a steady stream of Lege trivia on their blogs. (For the record, Brooks says she didn't leave The Dallas Morning News out of fear of the paper cutting the bureau, but she did add, "You never know what's going to happen around the corner.")

KXAN is focused on making its website a competitive entity, according to station General Manager Eric Lassberg. But it's less committed to the idea of a Sunday talk show. There are no plans to continue the current format after the legislative session, Lassberg says. The program will have to attract a decent rating, or the station will likely return the half hour to its usual format of an anchor reading news stories and updated weather reports. "We're just trying to get innovative and see if something will stick," Lassberg said. "If anybody has a shot at it, we feel we have a shot at it in the half hour before Meet the Press."

Meanwhile, the other stations are sticking with infomercials.

What if they killed your TV, and nobody noticed?

Turns out the digital TV transformation is turning into a huge cluster hump. Who would have guessed?

A coupon program to help offset the cost of converter boxes ran out of money weeks ago, long before the Feb. 17 deadline, exactly as consumer advocates said it would. And concerns linger that the people most likely to be affected – the poor and elderly – are the least likely to know anything about the program. Now the incoming Obama administration is calling for a delay in the deadline for implementing the switch, a move sure to wreak havoc.

"I don't know if they should delay it or not," said Rondella Hawkins, telecommunications and regulatory affairs manager for the city of Austin. "If they delay it, people will just put off what they should have been doing for the last year."

The city has been staging regular community meetings on the digital switch, augmenting relentless campaigns sponsored by broadcasters and the federal government. For the past year, consumers have been inundated with text crawls, infomercials, and TV news features explaining the transition, which affects only people who don't subscribe to cable or digital services and who don't own a digital TV.

"I have a real sense that people are informed," Hawkins said. "Everybody is aware of it." But it could be that people simply don't care. The city's community meetings typically draw about five people, Hawkins said.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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TV Eye
TV Eye
Choice TV

Belinda Acosta, Oct. 10, 2008

Media Watch: Boob Tube Drama
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KXAN, Jenny Hoff, Paul Stekler, Elise Hu, Rondella Hawkins, 81st Legislature

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