Changing Channels

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

"Crime's the number-one issue in this city, especially in the communities that we serve," says Dolcefino. "We have a large amount of viewers in minority neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods where crime is especially tough. What are we supposed to do, ignore that?"

Channel 13's obstacles to re-establishing its lost supremacy go beyond overcoming Channel 11's different take on the news of the day. Many believe KHOU got within striking distance of the top simply by deciding on a format, a slogan and an image and sticking with them. And now that third-place Channel 2 is in the hands of the big-money, high-concept media moguls at Washington Post/Newsweek, some are picking it as the not-so-dark horse in this race -- more bad news for 13.

On-air and behind-the-scenes changes are certain at Channel 2, as was evidenced by the announcement last week of a "voluntary separation program" in which all the station's employees -- some 200 people -- were given the option of taking a voluntary severance payment based on seniority. Those who opted to stay could be laid off once the offer expires. General manager Steve Wasserman admits on-air changes will be made as well, though he declines to discuss his game plan. Wasserman does deny, though, that there is any truth to the rumor that some Channel 2 old-timers had been "grandfathered" in by the Hobbys when the station was sold. Evidence of that lack of certainty among the on-air staff came recently when veteran Channel 2 police reporter Jack Cato bailed out to become the public information officer for the Houston Police Department.

Both Wasserman and news director Nancy Shafran come from the Washington Post/Newsweek station in Jacksonville, Florida, where they ran the city's number-one news program; naturally, they have plans to improve Channel 2's numbers. Wasserman promises "a change in presentation, the production of programs and some new faces on the air." The shifts will be calculated. "We don't think we can correct all the things that need to be corrected overnight," Wasserman says. "So we are patient. But we are not sitting on our hands."

Those very same words might well have been uttered a few short years back at Channel 11, a realization that can't be comforting to those now atop the Houston news heap. Ben Bagdikian, author and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks Channel 2's new owners will maintain certain standards, but also will adjust their plans to what works in the marketplace. In other words, if Channel 13's emphasis on crime and spot news at 10 p.m. remains number one, don't look for drastic differences in a newcomer.

"I'd be surprised if the Washington Post/Newsweek station would end up being the schlockiest, if they descended to the worst level," Bagdikian says. "But I would also be surprised if they ignored the content of the station that is getting the highest rating."

Of course, no one should expect Channel 13 to go quietly into the night. The station obviously isn't about to fold its tents. Already, plans are afoot to juice up the station's promotions; too, there are plans to revise the newscast's image a bit by changing the program's lead-in music, which presently is taken from the road-tarring scene in Cool Hand Luke.

"A year, year and a half ago we were a depressed TV station, it's tough when you're used to being so dominant," Dolcefino says. "But we're not [depressed] anymore. We know we can beat them. We've made some changes where it was necessary. My personal opinion is that Channel 11 has peaked. I don't think they have the personalities. They spent money out the wazoo, but they don't have the personalities or that harder edge to do it."

"This is a town that, for lack of a better word, likes shtick," Dolcefino adds, fully aware that his "Undercover Unit" is expected to make a splash, and make it with style. "It's still an entertainment medium. I don't think you have to compromise your journalism to do that. It's part presentation. People like seeing us chase people, seeing doors slammed in our faces because they can't do it, it's that power they don't have, the feeling they can't change anything."

If anyone knows shtick, it's Marvin Zindler. Whatever happens in the ratings race, Marvin will still be Marvin. He reflects the identity crisis of TV news in general and Channel 13 in particular. One facet of TV news is glitz; another facet is giving the masses a daily dose of reality. You have to attract an audience to tell it anything, but if you have an audience and nothing worthwhile to say, what's the point? Zindler, much to the irritation of colleagues who rather like being described as journalists, refuses to even associate the word "journalism" with television news. He says TV news is a "kindergarten game of show and tell. You show people and then you tell them what it is. Journalism does not show in the dictionary, I don't care what dictionary you have, as having anything to do with television or electronic media. I say it's show business and they all get mad."

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