Changing Channels

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

Some speculated that bringing Brandon back was a mistake, even though 13's ratings had suffered a bit while he was off the air. But Brandon was not the only KTRK name to make the news. Last year, anchorman Dave Ward was off the air for two months after falling in a parking lot. Following hospitalization for a blood clot, Ward returned to his anchor post amid much publicity and on-screen schmoozing.

And then there's Marvin Zindler, who, despite his self-reported plastic surgeries and current prostate cancer, remains remarkably durable at 73. Still, he has become something of a caricature of himself in recent years by highlighting and expanding his rat-and-roach restaurant report's slime-in-the-ice-machine spiel and doing fewer straight consumer-watchdog reports. "Now he does more medical stories than anything else," one TV insider snipes. "You'll see more stories about kids with cleft palates than people with legitimate consumer complaints." Zindler's reports from abroad also baffle some, who wonder why Houston audiences need to see the white-haired wonder play foreign correspondent from Haiti and Russia.

All that may be part of the reason KTRK has slipped. The very stars that took it to the top have aged and, quite possibly, not changed to reflect the new Houston growing around them. After Houston weathered the boom and bust and then leveled out, it's possible the city's viewers came to want a less frenetic take on the day's events. What's definite is that the change taking place now has been percolating since the start of the '90s. TV-audience shifts are far less volatile than radio; it can take years for people to switch viewing habits. So what the ratings are showing has been taking shape for a while.

The need to plan for the future was part of the pitch Channel 11 news director Dave Goldberg gave his bosses back in 1989 when he took over the news operation at KHOU. It would take three to five years, he said. There would be no quick fixes. If there is an architect of Channel 11's news emergence, it's Goldberg. He started his career as a television cameraman in Shreveport and is fond of talking in a self-deprecating manner about the TV-news business. "About 70 percent of people in Houston get their news primarily from TV. I think that is a real tragedy," Goldberg says. "If you're going to be a good consumer of news, you'll watch TV, listen to the radio and do some reading. I'm not sure any entity reports it right."

Of course, it would be disingenuous of Goldberg to suggest that he thinks anyone should shut off their TV set, especially during a Channel 11 news broadcast. And he's smart enough to know that anything he says to explain why his station has moved into contention for Houston's number-one news spot can be contradicted by the opposition. In general, explaining the ratings of local TV news is similar to examining the entrails of an owl. If you hire the right oracle, virtually any theory can be promoted. There are enough numbers and statistics to prove almost anything.

There are theories upon theories about why certain newscasts are rated higher. Yes, Channel 13 no longer has a lock on the number-one spot for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts. But why is that? Is it because the opposition's newscasts are better, or is it because the audience from Oprah on Channel 11 doesn't bother to punch the remote and just glides on into "The Spirit of Texas"?

The Oprah factor is called "flow," TV-speak for a show that leads an audience to the next show. Thoughts of flow can be comforting to KTRK newspeople, who can then argue that they're not the problem, the lead-in show is. But at Channel 11 there's talk of how its move up the charts can likely be attributed to the station's taking the "high road" in news coverage, avoiding the crime coverage that other stations -- i.e., 13 -- pursue. Goldberg says it was a "conscious decision" at 11 to de-emphasize crime coverage. Of course, that decision might have been the only sensible one, since when it comes to covering spot news -- much of it crime -- Channel 13 is a well-oiled machine. Competing with KTRK at what it did best probably wasn't a good idea. So Goldberg may argue that "there are more substantive issues" his station wants to deal with on the news, but it's likely that Channel 11 took what it was left with, ran with it -- and was lucky enough to encounter the emerging Zeitgeist along the way.

Wayne Dolcefino is one who thinks "the more substantive issues" line is a bunch of hooey. "Channel 11 knew they could never compete with us covering fires, explosions or hurricanes or other kinds of spot-news things," he says. "They do a lot more 'meeting news,' they do a lot more laborious stuff. That's their editorial choice. But to call it the 'high road' is just stroking yourself."

Mr. Undercover concedes that his station has toned down the murder-scene stuff a bit to deal with new Houston realities, but he doesn't apologize for KTRK's crime coverage, which some have called "body-bag journalism."

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