What's Anchoring Neal?

Spelce's Ninth Wave Hangs Ten With Charles Kuralt




photograph by John Carrico

The camera focuses in on the familiar face under the black Stetson hat, a legendary newsman sporting a slice of Americana. The Texas head covering adds punctuation to the ending of a 90-second vignette on the romance and legacy of the cowboy hat, a segment exploring the family-oriented stores that sell them, stitch them, and freshen their standing in Southwestern folklore. Yes, Charles Kuralt, the classic newsman of On the Road fame, is back on television, and fortunately the hat gimmick doesn't come off as badly on the tube as it does in print. Kuralt says his new An American Moment With Charles Kuralt series is chiefly about "small truths, of the kind easily overlooked by people in a hurry." And fittingly, one such overlooked truth is as close to home as the hat on Kuralt's head -- that Austin's own Neal Spelce is the man directly behind this new syndicated series. Spelce did from Congress Avenue what the dealmakers at the networks and CNN couldn't -- he lured Kuralt out of retirement and back to American studies.

In fact, Spelce, with his predictable, unthreatening, local evening news voice -- a voice which emerged in Austin after his radio coverage of the infamous 1966 University of Texas tower shooting -- has inspired Kuralt to work with Spelce's own, unproven Ninth Wave Productions, in creating and coordinating an ambitious run of 156 annual shows that pundits are already calling a landmark in news syndication. Better yet, Spelce's relatively low-key 40-year career in Austin news, business, civic life, radio, and publishing is itself classic Kuralt material -- the tale of a humble guy from a small town who possesses a bigger story than he lets on. While the big news looks initially to be the pairing of Spelce and Kuralt itself, Spelce is quick to point out that his other ventures, anchoring K-EYE's nightly newscasts and publishing his weekly 2,000 word business-oriented newsletter, remain his real public platforms. An American Moment With Charles Kuralt, says Spelce, is fully about the show's namesake, a reporter and writer Spelce maintains is something more than just one of the most respected and trusted journalists of his time. "Walter Cronkite is respected and trusted, but Charles Kuralt is loved," says Spelce. "People smile when you say Charles Kuralt."


Good News

Invariably, Spelce himself flashes a large smile when he says the name Charles Kuralt. And as well he should, because Kuralt, along with Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw, is one of the field's undeniable marquee names. Undoubtedly, Kuralt carries more name recognition than Prentice Medder, a Dallas college professor/minister who Ninth Wave originally used in similarly upbeat one-minute segments called Breakthrough, which ran on Dallas' WFAA in 1993 and became the blueprint for An American Moment. With violent crime and sex scandals so often dominating the first half of local news broadcasts, Ninth Wave (at the time unaffiliated with Spelce) believed that a regularly positioned positive piece of Americana had both social appeal and a national market value. By late 1993, Spelce casually entered the picture as a marketing consultant to the production company which had yet received very little syndication response. For a percentage of Ninth Wave's business and the title of President and CEO, Spelce vowed to retool the syndication format and find a host that advertisers and stations would recognize.

So with a proposal that asked Kuralt to not only narrate, but create and execute the story ideas, Spelce began to blindly court a colleague he'd met only once, during 1961 at CBS News' New York headquarters. As meetings with Kuralt's agent progressed, so did financing discussions with a major advertiser who would bankroll the entire effort in exchange for an attached 30-second commercial. Negotiations went around and around for two years, and about the same time Spelce left KTBC's anchor chair for K-EYE, Ninth Wave serendipitiously switched advertising backers and found financing that would increase An American Moment's budget by more than a million dollars annually. "It was a three-year process," Spelce says. "I had to keep quiet for two and a half of those years because it hadn't come together. It was a simple concept but a complicated idea to actually put together."

In hindsight, Spelce says securing Kuralt, and settling on his pay, was actually the easy part. More difficult, he admits, was the process of making the Breakthrough concept fit Kuralt's natural style, his writing and pacing. For nearly 25 years, Kuralt's On the Road pieces clocked in at five, six, or seven minutes each and ran on the CBS Evening News about 30 times a year. And although Spelce says he was looking for new stories to similarly highlight small details and casual tones, An American Moment would nonetheless demand it's own structure. "[We] come walking in saying `Hey Charles, how would you like to do 156 instead of 30, no longer than 90 seconds long.' His first reluctance was the 90 seconds, his second was in doing that many segments," says Spelce.

Fortunately, says Spelce, Kuralt quickly realized that both the length and number of the spots had become the key variables to the American Moment marketing concept. "We told the stations, we're going to give you a minute-and-a-half of news product. And you have to realize that for practically every television newscast in the country a-minute-and-a-half story is a long story. Then we're going to ask for a 30-second spot in return. So while they're giving up two minutes, they're getting the best minute and a half on local television by far... the best story three times a week."

Appropriately, the promotional reel of sample stories Spelce used to lure affiliates was indeed classy, with a soft-spoken Kuralt pitching deliberately quaint segments on blacksmiths, black-eyed peas, and whirly-gigs. And yet for all the obvious cross-generational appeal of the initial segments, Spelce says lining up a roster of affiliates has been the product's most consistent challenge.

Although some of the 70 stations that eventually agreed to carry An American Moment repeat the three segments in different newscasts throughout the day, Ninth Wave needs at least the three airings to prove to its advertiser that they're reaching a sizable enough local news audience. And so while the segment-plus-advertising deal is a simple barter concept (not unlike most syndication deals), Spelce maintains that Ninth Wave faced a pair of additional roadblocks. Chiefly, Ninth Wave had to ask interested stations to air the segments uninterrupted -- as a full two minute block. American Century, a large national mutual fund house which serves as the segment's sole advertiser, would ideally have liked to appear in the show's title. But Kuralt has a steadfast policy that he not be identified as endorsing any sponsor. Therefore, to get American Century its money's worth in identification, Ninth Wave insists that as An American Moment fades to black, the accompanying American Century commercial airs immediately. This unusual "adjacent arrangement" doesn't allow affiliates to come back to the studio before the commercial. "Have you ever seen a commercial come up without a break?" asks Spelce, obviously still impressed so many major stations have agreed to the deal.

Although other nationally syndicated features like Consumer Reports (which K-EYE also carries) allow local reporters to add voiceovers that provide a local spin, the whole point of An American Moment remains Kuralt's own timeless voice and writing, which allows Ninth Wave to sell affiliates on the show's mass appeal, a national appeal that doesn't work against a newscast's inherently local spin. The key, says Spelce, is an expensive team of freelance photojournalists, Dallas editors, Kuralt's New York contributions, and a staff of writers and researchers who have already provided enough material for Kuralt to have approved over 100 segment ideas. "They're profound stories with meaning -- wonderfully shot and beautifully written" says Spelce. "Each 90 seconds is produced almost like a movie... so it's incredibly expensive. In fact, they're the most expensive 90-second news feature to have ever aired on television."

And because American Moment launched with nearly 80 affiliates after only three months of real pre-production on January 1 of this year, the segments have also become one of syndicated television's quickest national rollouts. But according to the media experts, An American Moment is also looking like a pretty safe bet. According to Spelce, firming up carriers in the three major cities the program lacks (Seattle, New York, and Chicago) mostly hinges on decisions from stations in the midst of changing ownership. Best of all, even for the all the expense, the pieces do seem to be living up to their advance billing -- they're clever, insightful, and well-researched. And if by chance a downward trend reveals itself, the series' worst-case scenario would be that either Ninth Wave, Kuralt, or the affiliates could exercise their options to leave a one-year contract. "Already," says Spelce contentedly, "everybody's thinking of this as a multi-year project."


Many an Austin Moment

Why Spelce sought out Kuralt is obvious, but why Kuralt chose Spelce is perhaps more interesting. In fact, television experts say they can't remember another time that such a well-known television star, actors included, chose to work with so untested a production company. That Spelce has spent a career networking with broadcast stars (and actual friends) like Bill Moyers, Cronkite, and Rather, is one obvious explanation. Surely they'd pass along kind words to Kuralt. But for his part, Spelce says that Ninth Wave's good luck was chiefly a case of good timing, whereby Kuralt was looking to re-enter television just when Ninth Wave came knocking with a production schedule that would minimize Kuralt's research and roadwork. But to ask what makes Spelce professionally qualified enough to lure and produce Kuralt is really to ask what else Spelce has done besides report and read Austin news off and on for over 30 years. "Everything I've ever done has come together in terms of providing the background of experience necessary to make something as complicated as this happen," says Spelce, before admitting he'd really rather avoid offering a verbatim reading of his resumé as proof.

But Spelce's official K-EYE media fact sheet does immediately reveal a resumé entry that would seem odd today, an "Education" section that exactly matches his career path. In an age where few spend an entire lifetime working in the field they studied in school, Spelce actually left the University of Texas in the late 1950's with three Communications degrees (Journalism, Speech, and Radio/TV) and has applied them ever since. In fact, even before his graduation, Spelce found early experience in ambitiously covering the courts, city hall, and police beats for KTBC television and radio. And as legend has it, Spelce got his first full-time opportunity only after Moyers' KTBC exit left an open slot. Following his 1961 stint at CBS proper, Spelce returned to anchor at KTBC, where he'd stay until an early-Seventies departure that began a 20-year absence from nightly news reporting. Before his return to KTBC in 1990, Spelce opened a marketing firm (Neal Spelce Communications), started the Neal Spelce Austin Letter, and owned and managed nine radio stations, operations Spelce says ranged from "screaming successes to horrible failures." But taken as a whole, Spelce's resumé makes for a unique set-up for An American Moment, in that Spelce sports a working understanding of reporting, writing, affiliate concerns, and program marketing. "There's a lot more to what I do and who I am than you see every night on K-EYE," Spelce says. "It just so happens that's the most visible part of my life. I have, all my life, worked day and night doing a variety of things. The drive to be an entrepreneur, to do things, to start things, to make things happen, and to do more than one thing, has always been present."


Tenth Wave?

Despite the demands of the television gig, his newsletter, and the up-and-coming Ninth Wave Productions, those who know Spelce say they can't imagine it will be long before the newsman's self-proclaimed entrepreneurial spirits lead him to yet another new Ninth Wave project. In fact, Spelce doesn't deny that it might be time to strike while the iron is hot. "We're spending money and working on projects," Spelce says of Ninth Wave's developmental plans, "but the public focus is on getting An American Moment launched."

Already Spelce says An American Moment has received positive feedback from folks like Moyers, Cronkite, and CNN President Tom Johnson, and with those high marks, Ninth Wave's syndicated options are seemingly wide open. Is the possibility of creating
syndicated vehicles for other veterans like Cronkite,
Bryant Gumbel, Rather, Sam Donaldson, or Moyer fathomable? Spelce won't name names, but says Ninth Wave could indeed be ready to announce its second national project as early as spring. Still, the question that ultimately has to concern K-EYE is what the success of Ninth Wave could mean to the commitment of its star anchor. Spelce says he's in the midst of a three-year contract, and that he's more than happy balancing his duties. In fact, because K-EYE is carrying An American Moment, Spelce says he can more than justify to his television employers that while he's away on business, he's actually working for K-EYE's best interest as well. "I really love it [K-EYE anchoring], and really enjoy doing it," Spelce says. "It's fun. I love the operation and people we're working with out there. But we'll just take it a day at a time or a contract period at a time. Hiring someone to do all this work [at Ninth Wave] is always an option."

Either way, Spelce says the biggest concern for 1997 will be in finding and approving story ideas for Kuralt, so as to maintain the early success of the company's maiden voyage. What Spelce calls "replicating that success on another level," may have to wait for now. "Now this little company that nobody ever heard of and had never done anything is a national player," he says. "We could be out there today but it's more of a wait and see thing.... Meanwhile, we can be very happy in knowing we've got vintage Kuralt, and perhaps, some of his best work ever." n

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