Changing Channels

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

April may be the cruelest month by most accounts, but this year, for KTRK/ Channel 13, February topped the list for pain. It was then that a ratings book was released showing that, for virtually the first time in 20 years, Channel 13 was not number one in the news at 10 p.m. -- the most important newscast of the day, at least as far as prestige and income are concerned. Instead, KHOU/Channel 11 was perched on top of the Houston broadcasting heap. Granted, the crowd hooked on the Winter Olympics melodrama starring Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding had something to do with that, but there was a time not that long ago when a Channel 11 news lead-in of exclusive footage of the second coming of Christ wouldn't have kept 13 from being number one.

Those times, 13 bitterly learned, are gone. While KTRK recaptured the top 10 p.m. rating in May and July, and can still boast (most of the time) of being the most-watched local station when viewers are counted from sign-on to sign-off, the dynasty days are over. Even after 13's rebound, Channel 11 leads in the news at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., while the gap at 10 p.m. is not the gap it used to be. And even as 11 claws at 13's back, another threat has popped up at KPRC/Channel 2, which has a new, prestigious and well-to-do owner, Washington Post/Newsweek, that intends to be part of the struggle for Houston's on-air

dominance.
It's all something of a shock for long-time KTRK watchers, not to mention long-time KTRK staff. "We were like princes of the city," says Joe Nolan, assignments editor at 13 through the mid-'80s and now assistant news director at Channel 2. "Shit, we didn't worry about the numbers, we didn't look at the ratings." That attitude held true for close to two decades; the very notion that another station would dislodge "Eyewitness News" from its throne was met with disbelief and sarcasm. The idea that financially strapped and editorially listless Channel 11 would be the one to do it was even more laughable. In 1985, its 6 p.m. newscast ran in sixth place, behind not only the news on 13 and 2, but also behind syndicated repeats of Different Strokes, The Jeffersons and Little House on the Prairie. A year earlier, following deep-pocketed Dallas-based A.H. Belo Corporation's purchase of the lagging station, Channel 13 news director Jim Topping had called Channel 11's chances "slim and none." And as recently as 1991, none other than Channel 13's highest profile on-air personality, Marvin Zindler, said the only way Channel 11 would become number one was "over my dead body."

An unfortunate turn of phrase, given Zindler's recently revealed fight with prostate cancer. But before that medical secret was disclosed, Channel 11 used Zindler's quote in an ad placed in the Houston Press Club's satirical Bull Sheet publication. Playing off the fact that 11 had edged out 13 in the 24-hour, sign-on to sign-off ratings a few times in 1993, it superimposed Zindler's comment over a photo of him wearing his trademark blue sunglasses; the headline was "Famous Last Words." Copies of the ad were prominently displayed on Channel 11's newsroom wall.

Though the ads have since come down in deference to Zindler's health woes -- even in the pitched battle for TV dominance, there are limits -- its message remains: the days of Channel 13's lock on Houston's couch potatoes are over. And Channel 13 should get used to it.

While for the newspeople involved there are certain issues of pride to be considered, the real reason the upheaval in Houston's TV news business matters is that there's money involved. Lots of money. The Houston TV market is ranked 11th nationally, and as a result more than $300 million each year changes hands for local television advertising. During the 1970s and 1980s, most of that money was shoveled toward Channel 13. But Channel 11's move toward prominence has meant that the price it can charge for a 30-second spot on the 5 p.m. news has risen to around $1,000, double what it charged five years ago. At 10 p.m., a top-rated newscast can sell 17 or 18 spots at about $3,000 each. That's $54,000 per newscast, or more than $3.7 million per year.

Given those financial considerations, the scope of KTRK's double-decade dominance over the local market is particularly astounding. Indeed, its dominance was so overwhelming that KTRK laid claim to being the most-watched TV station in the country -- a claim that may well have been true.

The beginning of the station's glory days coincides pretty much with the arrival of Marvin Zindler on January 1, 1973. Though Zindler can't be credited with single-handedly putting Channel 13 on top, the new approach that his hiring signaled -- an approach that included quicker stories, more use of live remotes, increased promotion and the introduction of the "Eyewitness News" tag line -- spelled trouble for KTRK's competitors. Prior to assuming his position on the air, Zindler ran the consumer-fraud division of the Harris County Sheriff's Department. A former Marine whose father was once mayor of Bellaire, Zindler had done stints as a reporter for radio, Channel 2 and the original daily Houston Press before landing at the Sheriff's Department in 1962, first in the fugitive squad, then in the consumer-fraud division.

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.

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."

"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."

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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