Note: All of this archive came from my personal notes and not everything I wrote for PortFolio Weekly was published as is. The extra bit at the bottom (marked Hewitt) looks like it included extended quotes I originally sent to the Editor.
PortFolio Weekly August 4-10 1998 Issue
“News at 11…errr.. At 10”
Shows like Ally McBeal and the X-files are not the only thing that will begin on August 31st at Channel 43. As a basic part of their agreement with Fox, WVBT will begin broadcasting live local news for the first time. “The late news early.” says Chris Nesbitt, WVBT general Manager.
“There is going to be a Fox 43 news at 10 seven days a week. That’s big. We’re adding 28 people to the staff for this project. We will share some staff (with WAVY)… including reporters. If we have a breaking story for instance… we may send one crew… but two reporters… the Fox reporter and the WAVY reporter.” Nesbitt adds. And according to WAVY President Ed Munson, “To us it’s a no-brainer We’re sure this ten o’clock news will be a real home run.”
That may indeed be true but Channel 33 Manager Scott Sanders has a decidedly different view. “I think there is too much news on the air now in Hampton Roads. Most people can catch local news on LNC(the channel 13 – Virginian Pilot – Cox Cable news channel)at ten o’clock or any other time they want.” Sanders adds. Martin Snead, General manager of Pax TV’s WPXV, and new kid on the block, takes a more neutral stand. “We’re not going to do any local news… it’s not in keeping with the plans of the network, and to do it right it’s a very expensive proposition. Now, certainly there is a need for local news and I respect the job that the local stations are doing in that area.” One thing is clear, everyone has an opinion on local television news in Hampton Roads, usually a strong one.
It may be their unique vantage point, but few news directors in the area come close to agreeing with Sanders. Tracye Fox is in charge of the news at WTKR, channel 3 in Norfolk. “I could never have too many reporters.” Fox says, a little surprised by the question of too much news on TV. “I could never have too many local reporters ferreting out good local stories. That being said… what frustrates me is that there are a lot of good stories out there that don’t get covered. And every day we go through this process of choosing what stories we will cover given the resources we have. It’s frustrating at times not being about to cover every story that you think is worthy of air time. So we have to make some critical decisions.” Fox adds. How do you strike a balance? “You could throw more bodies at the problem, it never gets solved. We just have to make the best decisions based on the resources we have and use our judgment to pick the stories that need to be told that are important to our views and relative to our viewers.” Fox explains.
Across town at channel 13, News Director Cindy Willett couldn’t agree more with the competition. Too much TV news? “I can’t think in those terms… here I have maybe a couple of dozen people covering news… and some of them are the technical crew like photographers and producers… now compare that with a big organization like the Pilot – they must have what? Two or three hundred people total involved in gathering and presenting the news… I can’t imagine they believe they have enough to cover every story… so I certainly can’t say I have enough… but we try to do the best we can.” Willett says.
What’s the biggest challenge? According to Willett, “Geography makes this a pretty unusual area to cover. There are so many towns… and each has it’s own identity and issues… and in many ways none of them seem connected. So you need stories of universal interest if that’s possible, and a balance covering the issues important to each town.”
The way channel 3’s Fox sees it, it’s as much overcoming a bad reputation as it is bad geography. “There’s criticism that local television news can be very shallow. And that’s true in many markets especially from reporters who aren’t invested in that market, haven’t lived in that market don’t understand the issues of that market… and I don’t think that’s the case here… I think we have experience… I think we have reporters with depth who can bring perspective to the stories and give that all important angle of relevance to the viewers… So I don’t think we fall into that trap that many local news stations fall into as far as shallowness goes.” Fox says.
You can tell that there is a lot of pride involved just by the way Munson and Nesbitt describe the Fox news operation. There are a lot of people who have put a lot of time into this project. “The set is fantastic. It’s being built by the CBN scenic shop. We’re not going to do a WAVY news cast though. As far as content both stations will present a straight forward journalistic style… but the Fox news at ten may look a little flashier.” Munson explained.
The Fox 43 News color theme is a sort of purple. Munson holds up some art work, “See we’ve taken a look at the other news operations in town.” There is a still of the WTKR news set, another of WVEC and still another of the WAVY set. “See, blue, blue, blue. It all kind of looks the same. Except for ours.” But will a broadcast ten o’clock news fly they way they think it will?
“The question is, is that a fad?” Mario Hewitt of channel 13 has a very serious look on his face. “Because right now purple is a hot color? And will people view it as that? Or will people view it as an opportunity – that they’re trying to make a name for themselves to be different? When it comes to news you can’t be too gimmicky. Because the substance of what the program is about needs to be straight forward. You start playing around and playing games and getting people confused about what your doing, you loose the content and the context of what’s it’s about.” Hewitt says. And just what is it all about? Ratings mostly. The more people who watch, the more money the station can make to hire new anchors and build new sets to get more viewers. That’s how TV news works on most levels. But watch out for going overboard.
Hewitt thinks that’s not so hard to do. “You’re trying to attract viewers because you’re giving them news. And there’s nothing flashy and gimmicky about news. It’s straight forward. And if you start dressing it up you run the risk of alienating people because they think it’s a gimmick. Now I’m not saying that’s what they’re going to do – all I’m saying is that if they do that they run the risk of turning viewers off. We try not to do that. Our goal here is to do news the way news needs to be done. I think that the purple may just be a graphics scheme, and people will take it that way.”
The color purple notwithstanding, Ed Munson brings his issue back into focus. “We’ll be providing the market with an all new 10 o’clock news cast. It will be the only broadcast 10 PM local news in Hampton roads. . We know that this will not take viewers away from our WAVY 11 o’clock news cast – but will in fact add viewers to the ten o’clock show who are now just going to bed before 11. We did heavy research into this. Pretty much everybody we asked said they would love a 10 o’clock news cast. Look what you have in this area How many of us in Hampton Roads have to report to work early… like all the folks who work on the military bases or in the ship yards. All those people say they can’t stay away until 11.”
First of not only have we been doing it for a little over a year and a half, you may recall that Channel 3 did it on UPN, on (W)GNT for a long while and ended up dropping it. There are opportunities for it but obviously it’s not the first time it’s being done in this market. WAVY and (parent company)LIN has a way of positioning it – but that’s all it is – positioning. We’re very proud of LNC and the job we’re doing with that. And the 10 o’clock newscast – I think it’s reaching it’s potential – it’s not all the way there yet – obviously after a year and a half we still have room to grow. But I think there is a market for 10 o’clock news.
If you know much about the ratings system here, then you know that the viewing patterns after 10 o’clock is not as strong as it is in other markets around the country. This is an earlier rising market… because of the military and because of the other businesses that are attracted to the military. We just have to get up earlier and go to work earlier around here. It’s a stronger early morning market than a late night market. So if you have a 10 o’clock news it will help some of the viewers. But then you have the issue of three affiliates in this market programming some pretty strong entertainment programs at 10 o’clock.. It gets to be a habit forming situation. Now, is it going to be an extension of WAVY’s news at 10 o’clock? I don’t know – but if it is, that might night work. You might watch it at ten and not at 11 or some people might watch it at 11 but not at ten – so there are issues there… but there is nothing new about a 10 o’clock news in Hampton Roads.
In my opinion, they (WVBT) will have a share of this market that they can reach… just like LNC has a share of the market. The difference is they are broadcast with cable connections and we are cable only. But we are very proud of what we have been able to accomplish in the past year and a half. I think they will be somewhat successful – although it’s hard to believe all that they claim they’ll be doing. It will have to come from somewhere else. And I don’t know that they’re going to get it both. I think they are not going to get a strong 10 o’clock and turn around and get a strong 11 o’clock as well.