News In Motion -- Is Kiro's New Format Of Walk-And-Talk Broadcasting ''Cutting-Edge Television'' With A Better Brand Of News, Or Just More Theatrics?

Live, from the Channel 7 newsroom, it's . . . a track meet.

Or so it seemed during a recent rehearsal in KIRO News' expensive, expansive new digs.

Unchained from the traditional sit-down desk - a fixture of local newscasts for 20 years or more - KIRO weekend anchors David Kerley and Nerissa Williams trade wind sprints. One minute, Williams is in the weather nook, introducing the meteorologist. The next minute she's halfway across the room standing over a reporter's desk, debriefing the reporter on-camera about an arson fire.

It's a big room, fit for middle-distance events. Swallowed in the expanse is the traditional division between the place where reporters and editors do their work, and the place where anchors read the news. All this newsroom's a stage.

While Williams delivers some lines on the fly, a camera tracks along with her like a dog on an invisible leash. "Comin' through," a cameraman says during a commercial break, as he wheels over to set up yet another shot. "Beep, beep."

Weeks of rehearsals make way for the real thing Thursday, when KIRO's "news outside the box" format, as it's been ballyhooed in TV spots and on billboards, makes its debut at 5 p.m. It remains to be seen whether Channel 7 has developed a better brand of television news. At least it's better exercise.

"It's a labor-intensive set," says reporter and sometime anchor Deborah Horne. "You're moving around. Walking here, walking there."

So much here-and-thereing, in fact, that KIRO turned to Kent Stowell, Pacific Northwest Ballet co-artistic director, to help smooth the moves. Fear not: Harry Wappler will not arabesque around the weather map, dressed in tights.

"The difficulty was reading and walking at the same time," says Stowell.

Stowell's not the only local artist who assisted KIRO with its revamping. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony music director, helped compose theme music. Mayumi Tsutakawa, former King County Arts Commission director, will "curate" a rotating collection of paintings and sculpture rented from local museums to gussy up the new KIRO set.

Instrumental in the makeover was Robert Bovill, a 40-year-old San Francisco designer whose resume includes dreaming up sets for George Lucas' "Return of the Jedi," a couple of Bay Area TV news operations, and now, this.

"News, weather, sports, entertainment," says Bovill, ticking off the list of topics with which TV news traditionally concerns itself. "I've added a fifth dimension - art."

At Channel 7, the time is ripe for a change in perspective. In the chase for viewers, KIRO-TV's newscasts are bogged down in third place overall, trailing NBC-affiliate KING and ABC-affiliate KOMO. Quite a contrast to KIRO's all-news radio operations, which perenially dominate the local radio ratings.

Last June, KIRO combined its radio and television staffs, creating one big 160-person news operation - the biggest broadcast news staff north of Los Angeles and west of Chicago, the company boasts. Andy Ludlum, news and program director at KIRO radio for the past five years, oversees strategy for the whole KIRO News conglomerate.

"I'm in the enviable position of addressing some of the things I think are wrong with television news," Ludlum says from his new office, a swimming-pool blue, ceiling-less cylinder with soaring windows that look out over the newsroom.

"Meaningless chatter, live for live's sake: A lot of what I see on TV news across the country is forced and scripted and just plain silly."

Ludlum says the new format and set were designed to make better use of KIRO's combined staff - to free up more people for time-consuming enterprise reporting, and to get breaking news on the air faster and with less formality.

"We're trying to cut out the middleman," says news director Gail Neubert, in charge of the TV news day-to-day operations. "If we want, we can go straight to the assignment desk and say, `Whaddya know?' "

"We could sit a reporter down, let them pop in the tape they just took out of the car and show it to us," says Ludlum, whose previous TV news experience is limited to a handful of on-camera appearances in San Jose, Calif., where he worked as a radio reporter in the 1970s.

"I'm not bound by a lot of traditional thinking," he adds. "I don't want to create bad TV. But let's not let our urge to create perfect TV make bad news."

Not everyone is so confident that the changes are for the better.

"All of this is being done for cosmetics. It's all superficial garbage," says one veteran KIRO reporter. "There's been no effort to improve substance. But it's like the emperor's new clothes: You can't question it."

Ludlum conducts a brief tour of the newsroom, to the accompaniment of growling power drills and saws applying finishing touches. The final bill should be about $1.5 million, Ludlum says.

He points out several amber lights aimed out the windows of his office. Since the newsroom contains almost no portals onto the real world, these lamps can be switched on to give the whole place the glow of a sunset.

He stops at a few of the 10 "performance zones" in the room, most with nicknames: over there, "producer's island;" past it, "the mountain."

Hiking to the opposite side of the room, Ludlum cracks the door to the AM radio studios, complete with tiny robot camera. "See, everybody here is an anchor," Ludlum says. Radio reporters are getting a crash course in television so they can regularly file reports on Channel 7, as Channel 7 reporters have done on KIRO radio.

For all the work they'll do, the reporters' desks are unusually tidy. Like something from an Architectural Digest spread.

"We're not allowed to have anything on our desks except our computer, our phone and maybe a nice Rolodex," complained one journalist. "No telephone books, no dictionaries, no notes, no newspapers. What's the last time you saw a neat reporter's desk? It's not the nature of the job."

The focal point of the room is an imposing brushed stainless steel and faux granite desk shaped like the prow of a ship: the "command center," until a less military name can be found. The assignment editors take positions behind it, attending to several computer screens, police scanners, and phone lines. The anchors also can pause here, perhaps to consider the three-by-three stack of projection monitors that looms behind. The monitors cost $120,000 - more than Channel 7's entire current set, built in 1991.

Ludlum describes some of the different uses for the monitor wall. For instance, a moving video image might fill the whole wall, then, when the story ends, shrink onto a single monitor and freeze in a computer-manipulated, "posterized" version.

"Like on `The Wild Wild West,' " Ludlum says. "Remember?"

The changes at KIRO are not without precedent. Last year in Miami, for example, NBC affiliate WTVJ rolled out its casually mobile local news format. In place of an anchor, a "host" strolled through the newsroom, chatting with reporters, sometimes even interrupting them in the middle of typing a story.

WTVJ's viewership remained flat. One television critic there dismissed the changes as "a glitzy mixture of endless promos, lengthy reports that reveal little news, and annoying chatter."

A sample tape of WTVJ's newscast made the rounds at KIRO.

Ludlum cites it as an example of what to avoid. Too sensational, he says, hobbled by "a phony sense of urgency" and a set that "looks like cable access."

Last month, Los Angeles station KCOP introduced its variation on the theme - complete with balconied set and sauntering anchors - calling it "Real News."

Anchor Gary Justice enters the KIRO newsroom. He's wearing a warmup suit, but refrains from jogging a few laps around the new set.

"I think the biggest challenge is still to figure out why we go from one place to another," Justice says. "It's like an actor - what's my motivation?"

Anchors are practiced at matching their tone of voice with the story. Now they must also worry more than ever before about body language.

Co-anchor Susan Hutchison tried walking down the set's carpeted stairway ("the river") while "talking about a fire burning out of control."

"It didn't work," says Hutchison. "For that you need a more casual story."

The usual Noah's Ark-like, two-by-two pairing of anchors has been shaken up, too. During a single newscast it might be common for up to four anchors to appear, including veteran sportscaster Steve Raible, whose position has been shifted to news. Anchors also will report more often from the field, says Ludlum.

Frank N. Magid Associates, one of the country's largest TV news consultants, has tried "walk-and-talk" style newscasts on test audiences. They reportedly found them "distracting."

After 25 years as a client, KIRO-TV dropped Magid at the end of last year.

"Traditional television consultancies aren't the answer," says Ludlum. "They aren't going to find this in their tape libraries. I'm afraid they'd drive us to more of the same."

Back on the set, just past producers' island and near the mountain and the river, reporter Horne takes a break from tapping on her laptop computer to consider the future, which surrounds her.

"There's no way around the apprehension, because this is something different," she says. "This is cutting-edge TV. If it does work, people will say: `Why didn't we think of that?' "