Changing Channels

For decades, 13 ruled the Houston airwaves. Now 11 is coming on strong. Is KTRK's broadcast dynasty losing its hold?

Channel 13 hired Zindler because he was a character; when he went on the air, it was impossible not to notice him. Even before joining KTRK, Zindler shaved part of his head daily so he could wear a hairpiece (a routine he says he continues). When he started at Channel 13, he says, he was warned by news director Walt Hawver that he couldn't insert his opinion into his news reports. Zindler demurred. He told Hawver he had an opinion and he was going to broadcast it. Zindler could have been canned right then and there. That he wasn't indicated KTRK was willing to move in a direction that would set it apart from other Houston TV newscasts. The difference was signified by Zindler's commentary, which has become not just a trademark of his on-air performances, but a trademark of Channel 13.

Though Zindler became the personification of the station's success -- high profile personalities, intense on-air promotions and an emphasis on quick, hard-charging reporting -- his wasn't the only personality to break through the TV screen during a 13 broadcast. His image, complete with garish suits, a snow-white hairpiece and tinted glasses, was the flashiest, but it's had some competition. Indeed, in terms of the station's current hype, histrionics and hard news, Wayne Dolcefino may be the leader of the pack. As head of the station's "Undercover Unit," Dolcefino personifies the hard-bitten hard-charger who won't let any door stand in his way. His latest expose involved problems in the Houston Independent School District's alternative certification program and led to an HISD investigation and the dismissal of dozens of improperly certified bilingual teachers. But then there's also been Dr. Red Duke, the mustachioed trauma surgeon, who was a Channel 13 find and eventually was packaged for other markets. Duke's medical reports and folksy health tips reek of Texan witticisms, making the way he says things at least as interesting as what he says. Too, there was Alvin Van Black, a once-caustic radio talk-show host who metamorphosed into the grinning, tuxedoed tour guide of the "Alvin at Night" segment. Captaining all this was long-time anchor Dave Ward, the consummate steady hand on the wheel, guiding viewers through the mix of news and hoopla. Jan Carson was his long-time co-anchor, and now the female-counterpart role is filled by Shara Fryer.

Channel 13's formula may have worked because of what was happening in Houston during the years of its ascendance. Urgent times begot urgent news. As the city grew exponentially and boomed economically, fast-paced newscasts stressing spot news, laced with presentations by distinctive, assertive characters, mirrored the impression many residents had of their town by the end of the day: a hectic, chaotic, goofy place.

In addition to high-profile personalities, promotion for Channel 13 was important. During the 1970s, Channel 2 was the station that obtained the first satellite news truck for remote broadcasts. Channel 11 was the station that used its remote capabilities most often. But thanks to a series of effective ads showing Channel 13 anchor Dave Ward going live with this great new technology, many Houstonians thought KTRK was the pioneer in this area.

"Surveys showed that 13 was the dominant live station, even though 2 had got there first, 11 was doing more of it and 13 had got there last," says Garvin Berry, a veteran Houston newsman who worked at KTRK as an assignments editor from 1976 to 1981. "The perceived reality was they were best because of the way they promoted it and the way they handled it on the air. They convinced people they were the best." At 13, everything was promotable, even a new broadcasting tower. In 1982, full-page ads in the Post and the Chronicle showed representations of the Empire State Building and the Sears Tower to point out that KTRK's new 2,000-foot tower was taller than either of those landmarks.

Wayne Dolcefino knows hype is part of the game. But he also thinks that at 13 there's substance to the promotion, a substance he says is missing from Channel 11's slogan of "The Spirit of Texas."

"Marvin sort of embodies what's made this station big and that is the average person believes, and rightfully so, that we will go to bat for them," says Dolcefino. "I know Channel 11 doesn't do that. 'The Spirit of Texas' means you don't piss anybody off. If you analyze what they do, they don't ask the hard questions."

Money also mattered in KTRK's dynasty, both in sponsoring community-based food drives and spending money for equipment and people. KTRK's owner, Capital Cities Communications, was willing to spend and spend heavily at a time when the owners of the other two network affiliates were tightfisted. That changed in 1984, when A.H. Belo bought Channel 11. Showing a willingness to unloosen the purse strings, Belo tried to hire Zindler away from KTRK. But 13's icon didn't take the bait, even though he said he was offered a long-term contract worth $2 million. (Belo denied the offer was anywhere near that amount.) Zindler may well have thought that not all the money in the world could bring 11 up to 13's level. But in ten years, a lot of things can change.

Some of KTRK's slippage could well be related to the foibles of its aging cast of characters. In January 1989, veteran weatherman Ed Brandon was absent for several weeks. The absence was first attributed to "blood pressure problems." Brandon, who had been a KTRK weatherman since 1972, then disappeared off the air for almost a year. He finally returned in April 1990 after admitting to a 14-year cocaine addiction. What Brandon denied, through a press conference held by private investigator Clyde Wilson, was that he had sexually assaulted a man who later sought $3,500 in exchange for not suing the weatherman. Wilson said at the time that Brandon had paid the money, but he insisted no sexual assault had taken place. No charges were filed.

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