New general manager. New news director. What else is new?
At KCBS-TV Channel 2, not much. A parade of executives has come and gone through the halls of the station over the past 20 years, but no one has been able to restore the luster to what once was considered the finest local TV newsroom in the country. KCBS has run third in the news ratings behind KABC-TV Channel 7 and KNBC-TV Channel 4 for almost all of that time.
Now William Applegate--a reporter at the station 20 years ago, who was fired in 1976 in one of the station's many failed attempts to regain its stature of the 1960s and early '70s--has been charged with doing what many a predecessor could not do. On the job as general manager four months in the wake of one of the most tumultuous periods in the station's history, Applegate said that his goal is "to restore the image of the station to what it was back in the days of 'The Big News.' "
But when asked how he'll achieve that goal in the face of so much failure, Applegate seems to have more questions than answers.
"Does it mean we have to erect pictures of Edward R. Murrow in the hallway? No," said Applegate, 47, who most recently ran the CBS station in Chicago after a stint as a news director at television stations in Eugene, Ore., Buffalo, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York.
"But we have to do as good a job in journalism as television can do in a competitive environment. We have to build a contemporary newscast that is both credible and can attract what clearly is a declining news audience. That doesn't mean cops and robbers from start to finish. And I don't think it means having a helicopter buzzing into daytime programming and following car chases down the San Diego Freeway. Maybe I'm wrong, but it's not an easy thing. I can't sit here and tell you, 'This is what our newscast is going to look like.' "
Applegate, the station's third boss in as many years, \o7 can \f7 say that it \o7 won't \f7 look like the station's newscasts of the past 1 1/2 years.
During that time, KCBS adopted a tabloid blood-and-guts style that featured gratuitous and sometimes misleading live reports and some questionable journalistic ethics that drew criticism both from staffers and television critics. John Lippman, the news director who masterminded that particular format change and alienated at least a portion of his staff with his blunt and aggressive management style, was fired seven weeks before Applegate arrived.
Applegate said his first priority was "to calm the place down"--at least one fist fight had broken out in the KCBS newsroom as a result of Lippman's in-your-face personality--and "to shut down the shrillness" of the newscast.
"We have tried not to chase gratuitous crime stories and are trying not to scream at the audience," he said. "Before John Lippman arrived, the prevailing opinion of this newscast was that it was tired and boring, and he came in and tried to energize it. And some of things he did were not bad. Maybe the pendulum swung too far and it wasn't done right, or there were certain excesses, or some of what was done was wrongheaded. But some of it was necessary."
Applegate explained that television news is a popular medium that excels when it can show pictures of a breaking event and provide an instant view of the world--as it did the past two weeks with the raging wildfires. His station will continue to do that, he said, but "in a more serious way."
"It doesn't mean we go with a live camera in front of an ATM machine where 12 hours earlier some guy held up somebody and stole $25. That's wrong. You have to employ a discretionary use of that kind of live coverage because if you don't, the newscast becomes superficial. It becomes a kaleidoscope of incidental or superficial images that end up a visceral affront to the audience because, devoid of any substance or context or connection to their own lives, they only experience the visceral element of what they view, and that is tension and fear and loathing. I won't mislead you. We're not the 'CBS Evening News' and we don't have the resources to be that. But we do have to include substantive pieces in every broadcast."
Several journalists who have worked with Applegate in other markets said he is a tough, dynamic manager who succeeded in news by using the tricks of the live-TV trade to draw audiences. Some of what he's done before, on occasion, could even be considered tabloid or gratuitous, they said, but they agreed that he rarely, if ever, embarrassed himself or his news department.
Applegate explained that the best way to tell all those crime stories is to link them somehow to a larger issue--such as a shortage of police officers--in a long, thoughtful piece.