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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.
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|
|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
|If you experience earthquake:
1. Don’t panic 2. Note whether earthquake has more of a “rolling” or “shaking” motion 3. Check on pets 4. Turn television to [INSERT CALL LETTERS HERE] for latest news 5. Call [INSERT CALL LETTERS HERE] hotline to add your two cents to “shaking” vs. “rolling” debate
|Medical marijuana club raided||If your pot club is raided:
1. Panic 2. Tell yourself this is NOT happening 3. Eat what won’t flush 4. Remove Bob Marley posters from walls 5.Hang commemorative photographs of 9/11 emergency workers 6. Inhale deeply
In the soap opera that is San Francisco's sports scene, one thing remains constant: Nobody cares about the Golden State Warriors. They're the only team in the NBA whose players actually bring down the excitement level entering a building, be it stadium or strip club (we're talking to you, Troy Murphy). Even though Dusty's been driven to Chicago and Mooch has been sent home to brush his hair, our local roundballers are lucky to get 30 seconds at the end of the hour. But they are 30 unavoidable seconds. How to make folks tune in for Warriors news?
Take a clue from one of the team's most endearing gimmicks (and we don't mean Earl Boykins). At every home game, win or lose, if the Warriors score 100 points, fans get a coupon good for one (1) free Chalupa at Taco Bell. It's always a magical moment when an accidental fourth-quarter tip-in puts the team over the century mark and all 6,019 left in the Arena scream, "Chalupas!" Gam-id says: Bottle some of that pixie dust and sprinkle it over your broadcast by offering viewers a free Chalupa if they can watch an entire minute-long segment on the Warriors. That's right! Viewers get a free Chalupa if they can whisper the final word of the previous night's Warriors segment into the ear of a friendly employee at Taco Bell. Everybody wins -- except, probably, the Warriors.
All Rad, All the Time
Yes, he slurs, stutters, sprays, and sways in his chair, and in the rare instance that he actually completes a sentence, he's still impossible to follow. But Gary Radnich -- the ubiquitous Las Vegas transplant who surveys the local sports landscape for KRON's late-night newscasts and KNBR's mid-morning talk-radio show -- is as "must-see-TV" as they come in the Bay Area. Put simply, you can't take your eyes off him. What will he t-t-t-t-try to say next?
Gam-id's research, however, indicates that there are 17 minutes of the day when the eminently likeable Radnich is not talking over some airwave about Bay Area sports. In our book, that's 17 minutes too many. The solution: Clone Gary Radnich and put him on 24 hours a day. It's an ethical stretch, yes, but the possibilities are endless: Radnich could talk about sports, or talk about talking about sports, or maybe even argue with himself! (Radnich No. 1: "Joe Montana was a class act." Radnich No. 2: "Positively! But not as much as Ronnie Lott.")
If ever there were a justification for the Raelians, this is it.
Wanted: Angry White Male Who Can Read
When it comes to anchors, Bay Area TV newscasts have almost all the demographics covered: white, black, Latino, Asian, white/black, black/Latino, Asian/Latino, Asian/black. Indeed, with the help of medical science, local anchors have achieved remarkable blends of non-threatening skin tone that speak to the very definition of multiculturalism, whatever that is.
There remains, however, one demographic that has yet to claim its place at the local anchor desk -- rednecks. And Bay Area television desperately needs a redneck anchor for one good reason: Rednecks make up a sizeable, untapped portion of the news-viewing audience. Have you ever known a redneck to turn his television off? It's time to give the toothless white trash demo a beer-soaked, cigarette-scarred voice of its own. The anchor wouldn't have to speak too good; rednecks watch the news on mute, anyway, and no demographic makes as much news as rednecks. Isn't it time to have one reading from a Teleprompter? Wait, oh. Yeah. The reading thing. Gotta be a way.
Focus on You
As part of its research for "Building the Perfect Bay Area Broadcast," Gam-id invited some members of its focus groups to weigh in on which newscast is their favorite, and why. Some of their answers are excerpted below:
I watch the KRON 9 p.m. broadcast, because I love "News You Choose," where viewers get to pick which of three stories they want to see on the next evening's broadcast. A few nights ago we got to choose between a story on Oakland's response to the Super Bowl riots (boring!); a feature on gang members getting makeovers (how and why?); and an advice story about the key to mending marriages ("working it out"). Well, I picked the gang member makeovers, because I saw a Sally Jesse Raphael show about the same topic. And I, for one, respect KRON for letting viewers have input on the editorial content of their news shows -- why should journalists be the only ones who get to decide what's news?
-- Linda, 36-year-old florist, Daly City
I like the KTVU 10 p.m. broadcast with Dennis Richmond. I'm a construction worker and enjoy watching paint dry.
-- Tim, 59-year-old construction worker, Fremont
KNTV's newscasts are the best, because when they map car accidents, their fiery explosion graphic is the most realistic. Seeing that red-and-orange fireburst on a highway overpass makes me feel like I'm right there. And I know there was some concern, after KRON lost the NBC affiliation, about whether a San Jose station could cover San Francisco, but so far KNTV has been dead-on predicting the weather for my neighborhood, which is the Marina. I mean, nobody likes rainy weekends.
-- Trisch, 18-year-old temp, San Francisco
KPIX is my favorite news station for two simple reasons: anchors Ken Bastida and Dana King (whom I call "the Queen of News"). Nobody handles an abrupt shift in tone from silly to somber better than Bastida and King. (They must teach them that at CBS.) One minute, Bastida will be bantering with that wacky sportscaster Dennis O'Donnell about the 49ers' chances (Bastida is such an optimist!); the next, King will be speaking with understated sorrow about another homicide in Oakland. They're both so real, so believable, and that's a quality I cherish in my anchors.
-- Elliot, 47, Mill Valley
I'm very loyal to KGO, because of the feature "ABC7 Listens." A few weeks ago, I attended an ABC7 Listens meeting at my local library, and one of KGO's reporters invited all of us to tell her which stories "in our backyard" they should be covering. Well, after the other guy in the audience went, I stood up and told the reporter about these problems my wife and I were having with our compost heap. Not more than one week later, ABC7 had a whole story about helpful tips to keep your compost heap under control. That's what I call serving the community. And is there anything Dr. Dean Edell doesn't know about vitamins?
-- Frank, 81-year-old retiree, Novato
Bring Back Terilyn Joe
Terilyn Joe, the former lead anchor at KNTV, gained infamy last year when she was accused of hurling tomatoes and eggs at noisy landscapers beneath the window of her San Francisco home. (We hear you, Terilyn: 11:30 a.m. is too early for chainsaws.) One of the best-known news personalities in the area, Joe was fired five months later from the San Jose NBC affiliate, and we haven't heard a peep from her since.
Gam-id puts it simply: Bring back Terilyn Joe. Bay Area TV news just isn't the same without her spunky cluelessness. And while it's arguable whether Joe should ever have sat behind an anchor's desk (her hair would have been so much more at home hosting an E! "Wild On" special), she could liven up any newscast with her nonjournalistic talents. Our suggestion: Bring Joe on for the final five minutes of the newscast live from the top of Twin Peaks (see earlier item on live shots). In the style of the legendary comedian Gallagher, she can hurl produce at passing cars to see what explodes best. Now that's the perfect end to a perfect Bay Area newscast.
Back to you, Terilyn.