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Where Crime Does Not Play

A lone Texas station has pulled the plug on gratuitous stories. And viewers say it's about time.

June 23, 1996|Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic

AUSTIN, Texas — It was a Tuesday early in June, heady times up there on the high road of television journalism, with cheers and applause bouncing off mellow, gray walls in a corner of the arena-sized, geometric-modern newsroom at KVUE-TV, the ABC affiliate here "Where the News Comes First."

Flash back a few minutes and picture this:

A sleek building in suburban north Austin. Outside, temperatures in the sizzling 90s. Inside, 20 KVUE staffers starting their regular afternoon editorial meeting around an oblong table outside News Director Carole Kneeland's glassed-in office. Then, all eyes snapping left toward the approaching Kneeland and the sheaf of papers in her hand. The diminutive Kneeland standing at the head of the table. Kneeland making the announcement to her bright, shiny faces like a preschool teacher bearing milk and cookies.

"The ratings are here!"

Ratings for May compiled by Nielsen Media Research.

Ratings setting advertising rates through July.

Ratings still ranking KVUE newscasts first in this state capital of 465,000 that is famous for bats, live music, Tex-Mex literati and a sprawling University of Texas campus.

Ratings still allowing KVUE ad sellers to charge $1,400 for 30-second spots in the station's most-watched half-hour newscast at 10 nightly.

Ratings still beating "Your 24-Hour News Service" on improving NBC station KXAN-TV. Still clobbering "News You Can Count On" at KTBC-TV, a former CBS station now with Fox. Still blackening "Your Eye on Austin" at KEYE-TV, a struggling former Fox station now with CBS.

Ratings that may indicate--although no one knows for sure at this early stage--that less crime pays. Or, at least, that less crime doesn't hurt.

Kneeland to her happy staff: "Congratulations, everybody!" The following afternoon, KVUE will show its appreciation by treating everyone to a round of ice cream. Look, it's Austin.

Ratings periods are throbbing, pulsating cliffhangers that determine fates and trends. At stake at KVUE, however, are more than mere adrenaline rushes, market shares and ad rates; more than egos and even careers. At stake is something possibly historic for TV stations approaching the 21st century, for it turns out that despite the catchy slogan, all the news doesn't come first at KVUE.

Crime news doesn't.

"Carole always said she would rather be right than first," said former KVUE crime reporter Orlando Salinas, 35, now at WEWS-TV in Cleveland. As KVUE heads into summer, Kneeland seems now to have it both ways.

Here's the history: On Jan. 21, a few days before the February ratings sweeps, this Gannett-owned station proved itself the lonest star in Texas, if not all the United States, by initiating an experiment it titled "KVUE Listens to You on Crime."

In response to viewer angst over gratuitous crime stories, Kneeland and anchors Judy Maggio, 36, and Bob Karstens, 47, explained to viewers, the daily Austin American-Statesman and even the city's most popular radio team, KVUE newscasts were going on a crime diet. Less fat, less felony.

Unlike vaguely defined "family sensitive" newscasts that surfaced on perhaps two dozen stations this decade with little effect, KVUE got down to specifics that, if not indelible, were at least a clear blueprint. KVUE was not going crime-less. Instead of regular helpings, however, crime now would have to earn its way into newscasts by meeting at least one of five guidelines drafted by KVUE. Is there:

* An immediate threat to public safety?

* A threat to children?

* A need for action?

* A significant impact on the community?

* A related crime prevention effort?

Hereafter, each KVUE crime story would carry a graphic listing which of these guidelines it met.

You'd think that KVUE had spoken out against warm puppies, for wounded groans from the ratings-weak crime-stokers at KEYE echoed through Austin, making their way into newspaper coverage of what KVUE was doing. "Censorship," charged KEYE General Manager Dennis Upah, 34, and his news director, Jeff Godlis, 42, a Los Angeles-bred veteran of newscasting in San Diego and Bakersfield.

The murky linking of KVUE's crime guidelines to censorship wasn't cleared up in a recent interview with Upah and Godlis at KEYE. "It's censorship," Upah said, "because they say they are not going to cover certain kinds of stories that I think the public has a right to know." Don't KEYE's and other news managers daily make such editorial decisions about what they will and won't cover? Well, yes, Upah and Godlis agreed, still insisting that KVUE's guidelines were somehow censorship.

KXAN News Director Bruce Whiteaker, meanwhile, has been quoted as dismissing "KVUE Listens to You on Crime" as a sales "gimmick" masked as virtue.

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