More than 87 million homes in the United States have television sets. Each of them is on an average of more than seven hours a day, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co. For at least part of those seven hours, most of those sets are tuned to a local newscast. According to one oft-quoted study by the Roper Organization, 64% of the American public turns to TV for most of its news. Fifty-three percent rank TV news as the most believable news source.
Just how believable, how revealing, how comprehensive, how good is local television news? And how does it get from the idea stage in the morning news meeting at the TV station to the polished production that appears on the screen each evening?
Over the past several years, the KCBS-TV news operation has run through metamorphosis after metamorphosis, consistently with pallid results. Recently, the station has vowed to get back to basics. Throughout a typical day and night at CBS-owned-and-operated KCBS-TV Channel 2, photographer Rosemary Kaul and reporter Dennis McDougal roamed the newsroom, set and offices in search of answers.
Oct. 28 wasn't a remarkable day, nor was it a fast- or slow-paced day. It was just a day picked at random, and this is how it went.
A slate-gray ceiling hangs over Hollywood on the last Wednesday morning in October. Outside Columbia Square, the CBS-owned bunker at 6121 Sunset Blvd., daybreak traffic creeps through a light drizzle.
Inside the Channel 2 News control booth, a dozen TV monitors link light-bulb commercials , grinning anchor faces and colorful station-identification computer graphics over the noise of a thousand electronic circuit boards. The faces speak of a sliding stock market , a recall attempt against Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell and an overnight poison-gas scare in Lynwood. There might have been more talk about traffic, but it is time to cut to a commercial. This one is about cheese.
On a wall inside the control booth is a tattered sign. It reads, "We still treat news as if it matters."
It is a slogan from another time, when KCBS-TV first started trying to shake its dowdy, serious image and catch up to the young, happy look of its slick and successful competitors over at Channels 4 and 7.
The old set, the old anchors, even the old call letters went out the window three years ago. The station's audience had gone gray watching Channel 2 cover the news for a generation. The station was looking for a younger audience with money to spend. Yuppies with disposable incomes. Consumers deciding what kind of beer to drink or perfume to wear, not what kind of cheese to put on their bologna sandwiches.
KNXT Channel 2 changed its name and became the young, stylish, chic KCBS-TV. In its advertising slogan that year, the only real difference implied between the new KCBS and the other news operations in town was the caveat that the news was still treated as if it mattered.
There's another sign posted over the console, right next to this one. It isn't clear whether it was put up before all the changes started coming down three years ago--through four general managers, three news directors, at least a dozen producers and more news anchors than anyone cares to remember.
It is very clear, however, why no one has taken it down.
It is the familiar "We the unwilling led by the unknowing are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing."
Last spring, the latest new general manager, new news director and new managing editor vowed that tough no-nonsense news was back at KCBS. The staff has been cautiously hopeful and occasionally pleased with the results ever since.
"It feels good here, but we're like battered children," says one newsroom veteran. "We're not yet ready to trust adults."
INSIDE THE KCBS NEWSROOM
With one tired eye on the clock and the other on the television screen halfway across the empty Channel 2 newsroom, Hosea Sanders daubs pancake makeup on his cheeks and works some of it into a crow's foot at the crinkle of his left eye. Even if he doesn't feel like it, he has to look alert for the twice-an-hour blurbs he reads during local news breaks in CBS's "This Morning" program from New York.
Midnight to dawn is the slowest period of the day inside the newsroom and the busiest on the outside, according to early-morning producer Bob Craft. It's when Third World bombings and four-alarm fires and five-car fatals occur seven days a week. It all has to be sifted, Craft says.
The sifting comes to a head at the 9 a.m. assignments meeting, when Craft joins a dozen other news executives who, through a consensus process, toss out story ideas gleaned from the wire services, radio, the morning newspapers and other sources. The ideas are written in grease pencil on a plexiglass assignment board, so they can be wiped out or modified through the day.