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KCBS News Set to Offer More Good With the Bad

Television: The station, trailing in news ratings, plans to cover 'what's right' about the community and do more follow-ups on negative stories.

March 04, 1997|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In moves designed to establish a new identity, boost its faltering ratings and become more viewer-friendly, KCBS Channel 2 is undertaking a challenging balancing act.

Under the new plan, KCBS newscasts will explore both negative and positive aspects of many stories, including breaking news, said station executives.

The formula is among the major changes at KCBS being instituted by vice president and general manager John Culliton, who was hired last July to bolster the station after almost two decades of major management changes, upheavals and dwindling viewership.

Even though it was recently crowned the top winner at the Radio & TV News Assn. Golden Mike Awards for its news coverage, KCBS' newscasts have traditionally trailed behind most of its competitors in viewership. The operation has also been shaken in recent months by restructuring, and the departure of veteran anchor Jerry Dunphy, who lost his sole anchor slot, and the ouster of weatherman Maclovio Perez and consumer reporter David Horowitz, both of whose contracts were not renewed.

During the just-completed February sweeps, "Action News" finished third behind KNBC-TV Channel 4 and KABC-TV Channel 7 at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., and fifth behind KTLA-TV Channel 5 and KTTV-TV Channel 11 as well in the early morning. In addition, the station's 6 p.m. broadcast came in behind KMEX-TV Channel 34's hour of news in Spanish by more than a rating point, or about 50,000 homes.

The new direction, which is being touted in a new promotional campaign, was borne out of discussions among executives and with numerous focus groups. Culliton expressed confidence that the new focus on balance would be the beginning of a turnaround.

"This community is both a difficult and a great place to live," Culliton said in an interview late last week. "People feel that dichotomy many days, but we've heard from focus groups that they don't feel it's reflected in television news broadcasts. We want to have newscasts that balance the difficult things about Los Angeles with the positive things."

However, KCBS will not be juicing up its newscasts with "happy talk" among the anchors or a heavy influx of "good news" stories, Culliton said: "We want to be careful to articulate that we are not making an effort to sugarcoat the world we live in. Our objective is to reflect it."

KCBS news director Larry Perret recalled a recent newscast on a competing station "where the first seven stories at the top of the news were on crime. Do we really need that? Which one of those stories had a relevance to most people? You will not see that happen on our newscasts."

The station has been quietly putting the formula to work for the past several weeks. One story following the January shooting death of Ennis Cosby, the son of comedian Bill Cosby, said that the risk of being a victim of random violence in Los Angeles is lower than what is commonly believed. In the aftermath of last Friday's bloody bank robbery in North Hollywood, KCBS was planning stories showing a 58% decrease in bank robberies last year from 1995, and exploring whether assault weapons are easier or harder to get.

In addition to the overall tone of the newscast, the station on Sunday will start a series of special reports titled "What's Right in Southern California." Those reports will mark the debut of a "special assignment" unit, where anchors and reporters will follow up on stories that started out negatively but have been resolved positively or are on the road to healing, executives said.

Several advertisers applauded KCBS and its approach last week during a reception unveiling the formula. But rival news executives characterized the move as just another attempt by the station to crawl out of the local news cellar.

"I just don't know if it's going to work," said a news director at a rival station. "The danger is, they should already be treating those stories with that kind of concern. Ultimately, it's just a new way to market the station. They have to do something to stop this train wreck they're riding."

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Culliton, who in his previous post as general manager of CBS-owned WCCO-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul was instrumental in turning it into the top news station in the market, acknowledges there won't be a quick fix here.

"Financially and emotionally, we believed that we needed to create a long-term agenda," he said, adding: "This is hardly a silver bullet mentality. We're in this for the long term. We're taking into account mistakes that we've made over the last 20 years. The direction we're going in now is an editorial and marketing agenda. We believe it's a position that is open in the marketplace."

An intense promotional campaign has already been launched by KCBS that proclaims, "In real life, things balance out. It should be the same way on the news." Commercials with anchors Ann Martin, Michael Tuck and other prominent members of the news team telling of the new approach have also been filmed or are planned.

Martin said: "I've been hearing this from people everywhere I go that they feel there is too much bad news, and that life isn't like that. Balance is not just about good news, but about putting things in perspective. We want to show the city as a whole rather than highlighting crime every night."

Added Tuck: "We're going back to the fundamentals. It will be refreshing to read the news and, occasionally, get to smile."

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