There are 8 million stories in this city of palms and blaring car alarms, and seemingly 8 million local newscasts to relate the sorry tale of each one.
Come Monday, Los Angeles gets yet another, as one of the existing newscasts undergoes a complete body, soul and face lift--a multimillion-dollar reconstruction aimed at unseating its three entrenched competitors at 10 p.m. with a newfangled and ultra-high-tech breed of local news designed to appeal to young adults.
Welcome to what KCOP Channel 13, which to date has managed barely a heartbeat in the news image and ratings race, calls "Real News."
It aims to cover all of Southern California, but some of the most novel stuff will take place right inside its cavernous two-story newsroom, replete with overhead cameras, hand-held cameras, splashy graphics and roving anchors--Ross Becker and Vicki Liviakis, who will saunter from assignment desk to reporter's office to a balcony overlooking the entire scene. During breaking news stories, the broadcast will emanate from the station's assignment desk so that viewers will be privy to the latest raw information being relayed from the field.
It's flashy, it's different and, its creators claim, it "will be the most serious newscast" in the city.
"We will do more serious news than anyone, but we will present it in a more informal and visually interesting way," said Rick Feldman, KCOP's station manager. "We are trying to break the mold by being jazzier and energetic so that we can tailor it to a younger audience that isn't being served by the traditional newscasts that you see everywhere else. But I really don't believe that a jazzier presentation has to distract from the content. Some of the best, most relevant pieces anywhere in recent years were in Vanity Fair under Tina Brown. She made it easier to read, more fun, without slacking off on the content."
It won't be easy, Feldman acknowledged, but with KCOP trailing KTLA-TV Channel 5, KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KTTV-TV Channel 11 in the 10 p.m. news ratings, "it was not an option for us to do what has always been done in news with your anchor desk and two-minute packages. There are three guys already doing it at that time, so what do we have to lose?"
Tons of money is what they have to lose. When KCOP decided to model the newscast after a similarly frenetic local news broadcast in Toronto, the station had to cough up the funds to build a news operation, basically from scratch, said Jeff Wald, news director at Channel 13 since April, 1990, following a successful stint as news boss at top-ranked independent KTLA.
Bill Frank, KCOP's general manager, said that the station spent more than $10 million to convert a puny, "shoe string" operation into a competitor. They converted a sound stage into a big news room with the latest computer system, video monitors and camera hookups so that the newscast can originate from anywhere in the building. Where once they had only two vans capable of transmitting a live signal, they now have 10, plus a helicopter equipped with several cameras, including one on the tail and another that can shoot above the blades. Where once they had no mobile satellite units, they now have a satellite truck with four-wheel drive and a portable satellite that can be towed or flown into place. And the news staff has ballooned from 30 to nearly 100.
All this hardware and personnel will produce one hour of news each night against three competitors that all, to varying degrees, have long before established a news identity. KTLA with Hal Fishman dominates the time period. Disney-owned KCAL Channel 9 has slowly built an audience and news presence with its three-hour nightly block of news. And KTTV Channel 11, while still adjusting the content and style of its own newscast, thrives on nights when Fox prime-time programming scores big.
KCOP, which consistently finishes last at 10 p.m., has almost no news image, Wald admits. And, during his nearly three years at the station, Wald has kept it that way, he said, so that viewers would see a dramatic change when all his artillery was finally in place.
Being last in the news game is an obstacle, KCOP executives concede, but they are encouraged by KCAL's success, which had maintained about the same "nothing image" in news before Disney's big investment in hardware and air time a few years back.
But why bother? Why not just leave the news game to everyone else and try to win viewers with alternative programming?
"It's very important for a broadcast station to have a local image," Frank said. "If you believe everything about cable, there could be 400 signals coming into each home, and what's going to make us different if we are just running a bunch of movies that they can get on HBO or Showtime? You have to be involved with the community. We've done it with local events like the Doo Dah Parade, the Los Angeles marathon, the Hollywood Bowl and the Clippers. The next thing to do is develop the news. It's crazy not to do it."