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An Exclusive Look at Secret Plans for Revolutionary Change in San Francisco Television News

Wednesday, Feb 5 2003
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In the run-up to national sweeps month, SF Weekly has obtained a secret research report that portends huge changes in local television news. The report, prepared at the request of a major Bay Area television station, outlines a series of suggested "best practices" that the station was advised to put into place in time for this month's national sweeps, when networks vie furiously in a ratings war that helps determine how much they can charge for commercials.

Titled "Building the Perfect Bay Area Newscast," the blunt, take-no-prisoners report makes clear that all five major area news channels -- KTVU (Fox-2), KNTV (NBC-3), KRON-4, KPIX (CBS-5), and KGO (ABC-7) -- are essentially indistinguishable from one another, and therefore highly vulnerable in the super-competitive local ratings game. The copy of the report obtained by SF Weekly has been altered to obscure the identity of the station that commissioned it; still, the report shows that one station, at least, is frantically searching for a distinctiveness that will separate it from a pack of lookalike San Francisco broadcasts. And, sources say, major changes in one Bay Area newscast will force major responses from others.

Compiled by the Gam-id Group (a consulting firm best known for the technological innovations that led to the beguiling android known as Hannah Storm), the report is based on feedback from several Bay Area focus groups, in-depth polling of area residents, and computer-assisted content and likability analysis of the five local newscasts. The report's release comes barely a year after San Jose-based KNTV acquired the NBC affiliation that KRON lost -- a transaction that caused a flurry of anchor switches and counter-programming moves still rippling through all five news stations.

The November sweeps period showed that KTVU's 10 p.m. broadcast was holding strong to the top ratings spot, but mere percentages of rating points separated the other four channels' 11 p.m. newscasts. And, the Gam-id report avers, even KTVU's lead is far from unassailable.

Says one local insider who's seen the report: "There are some controversial ideas in the memo, but some good ones, too. People around here are like, "Shit, why didn't we think of that?' It's safe to say you'll be seeing some of those suggestions on the air -- and soon."

To that end, SF Weekly has chosen a few of the suggestions in the Gam-id report and excerpted them below.

Just remember: You saw them here first.

Live, From San Francisco, It's...

Local TV outlets have proven, time and again, that they know how to drive their vans to the scene of news. Indeed, when it comes to reporting live from a remote location, nobody does it better than the men and women of KRON, whose motto should be: "We'll report anything." Cut loose from the purse strings of NBC, having no particular place to go, KRON reporters will wait outside a darkened courthouse for hours to introduce a prerecorded "package" on a story newspapers and other channels carried days ago. Remember: It doesn't matter if nothing is happening, as long as nothing is happening live.

But we at Gam-id believe Bay Area newscasts are missing a huge opportunity to turn their live shots into ratings bonanzas. As it stands, producers often force their reporters to freeze in the wind and rain at intersections or hospitals that haven't even smelled like news in six hours. If the backdrop is stationary and unremarkable, why not pose those same reporters in front of the stationary, world-renowned landmarks and stunning natural vistas of San Francisco? Given the choice between a hospital and Coit Tower, which would you rather see? Turn every live report into a "journalism postcard," and watch your ratings soar!

Get Some Newsom

Local news (sometimes known as "following Willie around") takes a back seat on many San Francisco newscasts; why spend all that brainpower to develop "Target: Iraq" graphics if you're going to waste air time on City Hall? Still, if dogs are involved or someone might have slurred a minority, there could be reason to stick a microphone under the snout of a local elected official now and again. The problem with San Francisco civic leaders, of course, is that so many of them are physically hideous. (Footnote of interest: Some viewers tell Gam-id they have nightmares after seeing Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzales' hair near bedtime.)

The Gam-id solution: Focus each and every local governance or politics story on Supervisor Gavin Newsom, the hunky mayoral hopeful from the Marina. Old people think he's nice; bland white women think he's cute; there's probably even a Gavin fan club in the Castro; in short, Newsom is a ratings magnet. You might think it difficult to steer every politics story toward Newsom, but the strategy has worked wonders for the Chronicle and San Francisco Magazine. Be creative: If Newsom has nothing to do with that day's news -- and who could believe that? -- run a photo of him and tell viewers, slowly, that Newsom had no comment. That's just good journalism! And remember: Good journalism + wonderful hair = higher ratings.

Public Service

Bay Area TV stations excel at providing "news you can use," nuggets of wisdom that give viewers practical life advice they never would have discovered on their own. But most stations reserve this intimate connection with viewers for feature stories, leaving the audience twisting in the wind, unsure how to behave, whenever the news turns a bit more serious. The perfect Bay Area newscast should seek to provide a helping hand to viewers -- whether the story be tragic or trivial, national or local. Even rock-hard news can be softened into easily digestible aphorisms through use of a Gam-id chart (shown below) that tells anchors how to quickly transform upsetting news into reassuring pearls of sagacity.

NEWS News you can use
Man shot
on freeway

If you are shot on freeway after honking at erratic car:
1. Don’t panic 2. Pull to roadside 3. Remove tourniquet from glove compartment; affix to wound(s)
4.Memorize license plate of car that fired on you 5. Alert police

About The Author

Matt Palmquist

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