Liz Habib in a promo for 'Studio 11 LA.' ('myfoxla.com )
With the continued shrinkage of audiences for local TV, some news executives seem to grasp for viewers with a single imperative: "Just try something." Make a newscast look or feel different and maybe people won't notice what's missing, like, say, a complete team of reporters, original stories and coverage that goes more than skin deep.
The people at KTTV Fox 11 in Los Angeles appear to have adopted the philosophy in abundance with their latest offering — a 5 p.m. "news and talk program" that fairly vibrates with nervous energy, social-media feeds, pop culture stories, stilted newsroom vérité and heaps and heaps of opinion-making by the anchor-reporter hosts.
The conceit of "Studio 11 LA" seems to be that the news itself might not grab you but that people making a news show and gabbing about the news might. In its first two weeks, the hourlong "Studio" has offered up "War Room" shots of news planning meetings, lots of loosey-goosey on-set chatter, news "personalities" talking with off-camera producers and admonitions that we, the audience, should join the party via Twitter and Facebook.
"Expect the unexpected," the promos tell us. We might, if the drearily predictable didn't hit us right on the face, as with an entertainment segment dominated by Fox corporate cousins, like "Glee" and the new "X Factor." "Studio 11" treats the Simon Cowell songfest as a phenomenon equivalent to, say, a moon shot or the Arab Spring. (Later, on the 10 p.m. news, KTTV would hype perhaps the biggest Fox franchise of them all — "Star Wars."
I have to give the bosses at Fox 11, led by news director Kingsley Smith, credit for featuring provocative stories on, for example, the oddball worker's comp claims filed by workers in the city of Costa Mesa, infection outbreaks at hospitals and doctors receiving payments from drug companies. Even though KTTV was chasing other news outlets on those stories, at least it had the sense to feature them, when other stations likely would cling to standard cops and robbers fare.
Unfortunately, those chestnuts weren't allowed to stand on their own, as Fox instead tarted them up with more inane banter. Jeff Michael and Liz Habib spluttered with outrage, for instance, when Orange County Register reporter Jon Cassidy detailed his investigation of workers' compensation claims. And did we really need to end the piece on hospital infection dangers with a cheesecake swimsuit photo of one of the victims of the phenomenon?
But those asides were minor compared with some of the editorializing promoted on "Studio 11." Did I really hear histrionic field reporter Ed Laskos compare the incident involving Fullerton cops and a homeless man to a "gang beating," one that was extra "arrogant" because they did it while wearing microphones that recorded the action?
Yes, two officers had been charged in the beating. Their actions would tend to nauseate most viewers. Doesn't anyone over there think we're capable of drawing our own conclusions? Can anyone at the Fox Television Center on Bundy Drive say "innocent until proved guilty?"
But strident opinion-making does not appear to be an anomaly under news director Smith (who was reportedly too busy to return my call Friday). He brings the viewpoint-heavy style with him from Philadelphia — where reporters at Fox29 adopted an edgier tone and mused frequently about their subjects — to KTTV, where the approach is not confined to the new 5 p.m. show.
The evening news offered, for instance, a report on the University of California "Diversity Machine." The extended piece suggested that UC campuses were wasting money and neglecting essential functions, like research, while they obsessed over promoting a diverse student body and viewpoints.
Testifying to this dire situation were a conservative UCLA professor and student and an outside critic. The story offered no concrete information — budgets, staffing levels, for example — to back up its contentions. It also managed to find not a single dissenting voice or opinion. But are we supposed to believe Fox couldn't find one professor, student or alumnus to disagree? (Given that KTTV reported "no comments" from UC campus representatives.).
Regularly breathless and bare-shouldered Habib, the reporter-weather-sports talker, created another cringe-worthy moment when "Studio 11" reported on the alleged embezzlement by Kinde Durkee, treasurer to multiple Democratic elected officials. Although the politicians have lost millions and certainly should be questioned on whether they properly vetted Durkee, Habib seemed to think the victims were in on the crime.
"Why didn't anybody say something sooner, because I think they knew," Habib told Eric Bauman, the rightfully incredulous chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. If she had any evidence about actual malfeasance by the politicians, she didn't bring it forward. Bauman objected, but Habib just kept nattering about bad doings and "shame."
Each "Studio 11" ends with the cast offering its favorite item from the night in the "What We Learned" feature. Real gems, including additional plugs for Fox shows — tend to crop up.
Here's what I have learned in the first two weeks of its existence: With its gee-whizzery and abiding self-absorption, "Studio 11" serves one useful purpose. It's the perfect lead-in to what follows at 6 p.m., gossip power TMZ.