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Can Laura Diaz rescue KCBS?

An aggressive bilingual ad campaign places the popular anchor at the forefront of the No. 3 station's ratings battle.

October 22, 2002|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

TV news anchor Laura Diaz calls it "a true Carrie Bradshaw moment."

There she was, on camera and reporting from downtown Los Angeles recently, when three buses passed, each featuring her larger-than-life portrait and the announcement that she would soon be "making news."

"It was just so surreal," Diaz said, amused at her real-life echo of the opening credits for "Sex and the City," in which Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) gets splashed by a passing bus with her picture on it.

Diaz, who joined KCBS-TV as its most prominent anchor in August after spending almost two decades at KABC-TV's "Eyewitness News," had better get used to that kind of surreal moment.

Around L.A., it's nearly impossible to avoid seeing Diaz smiling from billboards, bus placards or posters. The campaign announcing her arrival at KCBS is one of the most aggressive ever to herald a local anchor.

Notably, some of the billboards are in Spanish. Ads also have run on Spanish-language radio as well as in the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion. Diaz and fellow anchor Harold Greene rode in the recent Mexican Independence Day parade in East Los Angeles.

The aggressive bilingual campaign is one of the few instances in which an English-language station has specifically targeted Latino viewers. It has drawn barbs from rival news directors and executives, although none would speak on the record about their contention that KCBS is trying to turn Diaz into a celebrity more important than the news she is delivering.

"I just think it's insulting," said one news director at a rival station. "It should be about content." The executive also pointed out that Diaz's official debut Sept. 3 was overshadowed by continuous coverage of a huge blaze in the Santa Clarita Valley.

"They said she would be making news, and you barely saw her," said the news director.

An executive at another rival station said, "It's a fallacy that viewers follow an anchor from one station to another. They just don't. Viewers' loyalties are built around stations. They don't travel."

However, the head of yet another station said the campaign makes sense. "I really don't blame KCBS for marketing her in this way," said the executive. "She is extremely popular."

Though excited about the campaign, Diaz said she hopes viewers and others will keep the situation in perspective.

"I wasn't involved in the direction of this campaign," she said. "I'm very pleased that there is this warm welcome. But I don't think it was about me being more important than the news. It was just trying to point out that I had been at one station for a long time, and I elected to cross the street to go somewhere else. It was just saying, 'Hey, look at us.' "

She added, "It's true that you didn't see much of me that first day. The pictures were more important. It's the capriciousness of the business."

Diaz, a California native who grew up in Santa Clarita, has won three Los Angeles-area Emmys and received an L.A. Press Club spot-news award for her coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots.

Her growing celebrity status is taking some adjustment.

"For most of my career, I've just flown under the radar," she said. "Sometimes in life, when there is a major transition, people perceive you differently. But I'm the same. And I'm wrapping my arms around this new opportunity. People can criticize this campaign if they want to, but everywhere I went, people were asking me, 'Why did you leave KABC? What are you going to do?' "

The campaign is the highest-profile component in putting forth Diaz as KCBS' most valuable asset. Her hiring, coupled with the station's recent merger with KCAL-TV, is seen as key to helping turn around KCBS, which has traditionally trailed its rivals KNBC-TV and KABC-TV.

Don Corsini, general manager of the two stations, has called Diaz the "cornerstone" of the merged stations. His goal is to "assemble a news operation of unprecedented scale, with the best-known journalists in the city. We want to create the most respected news operation."

The verdict on Diaz's drawing power and the campaign's effectiveness is not in yet. Ratings for the 5 p.m. news, which she anchors with Greene, her former "Eyewitness News" partner, are still lackluster. But Corsini said viewership for the station's 11 p.m. newscast has jumped 25% since she started. Part of that boost is attributable to CBS' prime-time performance, particularly on Mondays with the new hit "CSI: Miami."

"Our focus is that we really have to take it one step at a time, and our priority is to get back in the game at 11 p.m.," Corsini said. That newscast has long trailed its rivals at KNBC-TV and KABC-TV. "The network's success leading into the late news will help us create a platform of success. Hopefully we can make Monday night a winning habit that can function as a springboard for the rest of the week."

Diaz echoed Corsini's sentiment. "We know this is going to be a challenging road. "We're proud of the progress we've made, and we will continue to work on it."

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