Local newscasts are rife with reflexive, like-minded news judgment and are slaves to well-researched staging.
But now, a year after CBS moved from KIRO-TV (Channel 7) to KSTW-TV (Channel 11), Puget Sound viewers have more local news options than ever, and some subtle differences in content are emerging.
With the addition of the recently launched NorthWest Cable News, at least one channel is doing news at any given time.
At 11 p.m. on weeknights, five channels are broadcasting local news. According to the February ratings measurement by Nielsen Media Research, an estimated average of 368,000 households in metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma-Everett tune in the late local news, and that doesn't include the cable-news channel's viewers.
Expensive as it is to produce, local news is a big money-maker, and the two stations involved in the CBS move are using it to rebuild.
In the absence of CBS, KIRO is broadcasting eight hours of locally produced news on weekdays. Although still third overall in news ratings, Channel 7 is inching upward. Its news judgment is the most sober in town, with a minimum of death and tragedy at the top of the hour.
Tomorrow, in a not-much-to-lose effort to climb out of the ratings cellar, KSTW will regroup with an hour of news at 11 a.m. and an hour at 4 p.m. - in lieu of its previous 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. newscasts. KSTW's 11 p.m. news will continue.
Those are unusual time periods for Seattle viewers. The new newscasts, which follow "The Price Is Right" and "The Young and the Restless," respectively, will target 25- to 54-year-old women.
Not surprisingly, KSTW is emphasizing health and consumer coverage. It recently hired former KIRO consumer specialist Herb Weisbaum, who also does reports for "CBS This Morning."
No changes at KING, KOMO
Meanwhile, the titanic twins occupy the ain't-broke department: NBC affiliate KING-TV (Channel 5), top-rated overall, and ABC affiliate KOMO-TV (Channel 4), which has the market's top-rated newscast - at 6:30 p.m.
Theirs are quintessential mass-appeal, fast-paced newscasts often drawn toward tragedy. KING and KOMO have dominated the market for years, and when CBS switched last year they were above the fray. They benefit from ties to strong networks, immortal name recognition and long-stable news operations.
"In some respects we are trapped by our own success," concedes Uli Haller, Channel 5's program director. "We can't just go do certain kinds of newscasts, because it would alienate our audience, and our audience is pretty large."
At KOMO, strengthening name-brand "equity" is a priority as competition increases, said general manager Dick Warsinske.
"The name of the game of television now is brands," Warsinske said. "What are the major brands? ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. A major brand for us is KOMO News 4."
The CBS brand turned the world upside-down for KIRO and KSTW last year. The network left KIRO after 37 years when KSTW owner Gaylord Entertainment Co. of Nashville put the squeeze on CBS in a complicated power play involving a station in Dallas.
A year ago, it was an exciting time at KSTW.
The station had transformed itself, implanting the CBS eye in its logo. There were billboards everywhere: "Change the channel. CBS did." (CBS had to, but never mind that.)
Two and eventually three newscasts a day, with the best-looking graphics in town, replaced the friendly but second-tier "10 O'Clock News" of the old, independent Channel 11.
KSTW's management was quite confident it could do better in the ratings with CBS than KIRO had.
But CBS had a very difficult season, and the fortunes of local stations and their networks are inextricably linked. Further, in local news, formerly laid-back KSTW was facing brand-name buzzsaws in KING, KOMO and KIRO.
In February, the 5 p.m. Channel 11 newscast was beaten by reruns of "Full House" and "Gilligan's Island."
"I don't think there's any doubt that you'd have to say KSTW is in a rebuilding program," said general manager and program director Kevin Hale.
Despite the dismal local-news ratings, KSTW got a little help last month. CBS prime time had a good showing by finishing second in the national "sweeps" ratings, and that helped KSTW's late-night news.
And Hale sees some bright spots: "The Price Is Right" and "The Young and the Restless" won or tied in their time periods in the February ratings - hence the strategy of having them lead an audience into news, in time periods where no broadcast stations are doing news.
Success is cyclical
Waiting is a pretty good comeback strategy, too.
Patience isn't a common virtue in the TV business, but it can pay off. The success of networks is cyclical. Now, NBC is hot. In a few years, it could be CBS.
"The thing that benefits a station that has strong programming in prime time is they are able to promote their other products in a stronger venue," said Joe Huber, vice president and associate director of broadcast for the advertising agency EvansGroup.
For example, KING has a killer prime-time lineup. When it runs promotions for its local news during those shows, a large audience is tuning in. Presumably, those viewers will sample KING's news. The news ratings go up, and so does the ad revenue.
The symbiotic economics of network prime time and a station's highly profitable local newscasts can falter when the network doesn't deliver.
"They jumped on a horse that was slowing down," Huber said of KSTW, "not only in prime but with David Letterman," whose explosively successful program has lost its ratings luster, in part because CBS' prime time hasn't been delivering him an audience, either.
But CBS is on the mend under new owner Westinghouse.
"KSTW is only a few decisions away from getting better - on the network front and on the local front," said KING's Haller. "They probably underestimated the equity value that KIRO had - it wasn't just a CBS affiliate."
Transition at KIRO
KIRO lost the network, yes. But its name recognition, its comparatively low channel position and its past community service all served it well in the past year as a largely independent station emphasizing news.
That's not to say KIRO has had an easy time since last March. Eight hours of news is one thing, but there are 16 other hours in a day. A scrappy - some would say scrap - schedule, built around shows from the United Paramount Network and reruns of "Seinfeld," saved the day.
"I'm glad it's been a year," sighed Channel 7 general manager Glenn Wright, referring to a year that's behind him.
Meanwhile, there is a year to look forward to. KIRO will air Mariner games at a time when the baseball team could make a run for the World Series.
The enthusiasm among Channel 7's journalists, a cynical and long-suffering bunch, is palpable. With the ability to throw the entertainment schedule out the window and cover big events and breaking news live, the station increasingly is a news option when the other stations aren't.
Well, except for NorthWest Cable News, a few floors up from the newsroom of KING.
When KING needs to stay with network programming, NWCN often is an alternative outlet for live coverage, broadcasting live events and news fed not only by Channel 5 but its sibling stations in Portland, Spokane and Boise.
So there are five channels in Seattle doing news.
"We continue to think that KCPQ at some point will come into the news arena," said Haller.
True, says Roger Ottenbach, general manager of Fox affiliate KCPQ-TV (Channel 13). But it will be at least a year, after the station moves from cramped quarters in South Tacoma to a remodeled building on Westlake Avenue North by Lake Union in Seattle.
"It's going to be impossible for us to do news until we get into that new building," Ottenbach said.
In the meantime, Channel 13 and Fox, which have been quietly building a substantial audience here and nationally, will be a force to contend with in other areas.
KCPQ already has a strong lineup of syndicated comedy reruns to supplement its Fox programming: "Home Improvement," "The Simpsons," "Full House" and "M # A # S # H" - all of which do very well in the important early evening hours leading into Fox's increasingly popular prime-time lineup.
In the fall, KCPQ will acquire reruns of "Mad About You"; in 1997, "Grace Under Fire"; in 1998, "Friends."
Fox sports this year will try its hand at Major League Baseball and has the rights to hockey's Stanley Cup and the 1997 Super Bowl.
By the time KCPQ does have a newsroom, it could enter the fray in a very strong position.