Changing Channels

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

Despite his perception of TV news as entertainment, and his obvious ability to gauge what an audience wants, Zindler is somewhat befuddled by the popularity of talk shows. Still, he knows they're important; he admittedly keeps an eye on Geraldo's ratings because he knows it affects the ratings for 13's 5 p.m. newscast. And he also knows that, lead-ins or no, some viewers just don't show up for the news. On a recent summer night, 10 p.m. newscasts were watched by only 33 percent of the audience tuned in to the tube; the rest of the viewers were spending their time with something else, perhaps Arsenio Hall or Golden Girls reruns, Cops or, heaven forbid, Beavis and Butthead. Since television news is competing in an entertainment format, it shouldn't come as a shock that the lines between entertainment and journalism sometimes blur.

That fragmentation of the audience is evident when stations promote themselves to advertisers. Channel 2 is billed as having an upscale, largely Anglo audience. Channel 13 is seen as appealing to a younger audience, working class folks and minorities. Channel 11 has an older mix, people with discretionary income. Everyone describes his slice of the pie differently.

And that may ultimately be Channel 13's problem, and the reason that its dynasty will probably never return: these days, the pie is just being sliced too thin. TV isn't what it used to be. Talk shows, MTV and repeating sitcoms aside, the emergence of Cable News Network, CNN Headline News, Fox's Channel 26, two Hispanic non-cable newscasts and the local 24-hour all-news Channel 51 mean that no reasonable Houston media mogul can expect to gather most of the city's viewers under a single tent, no matter how large that tent may be. Ethnic, taste and lifestyle differences have viewers pitching their tents all over the TV wasteland. The clickers are clicking, and as KTRK has discovered, they can click for thee.

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