Spelce and K-EYE

After 40 years in Austin, it's hard to argue with Neal Spelce's assessment that he has "institutional memory"-- a knowledge of local history, people, and trends that proves handy in both reporting the news and writing his newsletter. And interestingly, it's a piece of institutional memory that Austinites have about Spelce -- his coverage of the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting -- that may insure his place in local newscasting lore. For his part, Spelce says he believes the story might fade a bit now that the shooting's 30th anniversary has past. But could he imagine it being featured anywhere other than the first line of his obituary? "Walter Cronkite's going to be identified with the man on the moon and when he dies, they're going to say he's `The voice you heard when Kennedy had been assassinated and man landed on the moon,'" says Spelce. "But Walter's done so much more in his entire life. I don't know if he wants to shake it, and I don't know if I want to shake it, but I don't know that I want to keep reliving it either."

Spelce would also probably prefer not to keep reliving the early days of K-EYE -- newscasts oddly laden with incessant bloopers and an unsettling mixture of heavy crime features with conversely lightweight features. And yet, now, a year and a half after K-EYE signed on, nobody in local news looks as comfortable as Spelce does day-to-day. Spelce says K-EYE's newscasts themselves may also be on the verge of finding overall harmony and balance. "We could always do a better job of covering the news," he says. "But we're not going to tamper with the overall approach. We tampered and tempered the first year, and we're pretty finely tuned now."

Indeed, K-EYE has come a long way from its launch on July 3, 1995. Less than four months earlier, Spelce was anchoring at KTBC, the CBS affiliate that wound up swapping networks with KBVO, the local Fox affiliate. With his KTBC contract up for renewal and the time demands from Ninth Wave piling up, Spelce opted to stay in the CBS family and follow the network to KBVO, which switched its moniker to the CBS-logo-friendly K-EYE. Although similar swaps took place in several other markets -- most larger than Austin -- K-EYE became one of the only stations to sign on with a complete roster of newscasts, a challenging undertaking considering the network switch. So even if K-EYE's original news efforts looked more like TV Bloopers & Practical Jokes, Spelce now dismisses the bloopers as a byproduct of K-EYE's ambitious launch.

"The risk was biting off more than we [could] chew, but we've chewed it up real well," Spelce says of the early pressures of newscasting at a station (KBVO) that hadn't aired a live broadcast of any kind in the prior 10 years. "We're further ahead now by far than any other switch in the country.... The risk was making some mistakes because we had a staff that had never worked together. I'm very proud of what we did, and frankly, I think we could have crashed and burned a lot more than we did."

But when K-EYE did crash and burn, the station faced local news enthusiasts who had their VCRs running -- trading tapes over the Internet of classic K-EYE miscues and malapropisms. "The downside was that our viewers started laughing and said, `Oh, these guys are screwing up,' and we did. There were technical screwups, but we never screwed up in terms of content, journalistic integrity, or the mission. The technical mistakes made everything look bad collectively and the anchors especially, because whatever happens, it's your face hanging out there."

To their credit, K-EYE does look radically cleaner today -- with perhaps no more glitches than any of its competitors. Spelce says the technical glitches may have been a necessary evil in meeting K-EYE's goal to look immediately different than the competition. In theory, says Spelce, a viewer with the remote should see newscasts on channels 7, 36, and 24 as basically the same aesthetic product, with K-EYE standing out as more graphically and technologically advanced. "We could have had Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum all the way across, with absolutely no reason for a viewer to change because there's nothing different," says Spelce. "But the approach from the outset, moderated some now, was to have a different look.... The picture's less similar to the others and when you go up and down that row of four monitors."

Although K-EYE was also originally banking on "institutional memory" translating into ratings points as viewers scanned through and saw Spelce's familiar face, Spelce says he's most proud that K-EYE's in-house research studies show their newscasts bringing in three out of four new Austinites, who are choosing the station presumably for both the graphical differences and news content. But to some of the folks who've been tuning into Spelce for years now, it's more surprising that he has chosen to remain here. Why, after so much local experience, has Spelce not made a move to a larger market or even to the network, as so many of his local colleagues like Dan Rather, Bill Moyers, and Walter Cronkite did? Actually, Spelce says his year at New York's CBS headquarters in 1961 led to a decision that Austin was where he wanted to raise a family. "Every choice is a trade-off," he says. "but we opted to give up the glamour and the money of the network and move back to Austin."

In the meantime, Spelce's extracurricular activities -- including Ninth Wave -- have kept him firmly planted in Austin. And now, as he watches his new K-EYE colleagues adjust to living here, Spelce says he has picked up a renewed affinity for his own Austin stability. But unfortunately, says Spelce, advancing in television news all too often means moving to a bigger market, and rarely entrenching yourself in any one city. "It's a little bit of a tragedy in that you never get to know the place you're reporting on," says Spelce of the promotion process. "You can be bright, good, and pick up things really quickly and hopefully rely on local sources to give you information, but there's something that comes from being part of the ups and downs of life in a community that you don't get when you move on constantly."

Perhaps, say some local news insiders, it's actually Spelce's local loyalty that's given him credibility in one of the year's best local news debates -- the issue of crime coverage. While some contend K-EYE is too crime-driven, Spelce has been willing to argue that KVUE is doing its viewers a disservice by being unnecessarily light in its coverage of local crime.

"We had gotten the reputation in some quarters, not justified, of being a crime coverage station and it's only because we have taken on KVUE's crime policy," says Spelce, of the KVUE decision to not air crime stories that don't have a foreseeable immediate local impact. "I think it's ridiculous and not good journalism. They think it is and it's an honest debate.... We probably do more stories of good people doing good things, but I guarantee you we don't filter the crime out. We do tell you a murder appeared in Zilker and that we think that's very important. I think the regular viewer realizes our crime coverage is less than others, more balanced, and less sensational."

In the end, Spelce's view as a veteran is that the year-and-a-half since the switch has nonetheless produced the city's best news coverage yet -- from all four outlets. "I hope it is changing for the better, if for no other reason that you now have four stations competing and competition should bring out the best. It brought out KVUE's crime policy and I doubt seriously if they would have done that without feeling the competition. And it's made the other stations better, too. We're certainly a good news operation, they're certainly good news operations, but every single day you can find fault with what was covered, what wasn't, and how it was reported. It's not limited to Austin, Texas. All of us realize that and we all want to do better. That's healthy." -- A.L.

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