Starting from Scratch

It's been a long time since anyone in Houston has tried to do what Joe Nolan is doing right now: start a news operation from scratch at a TV station that actually has a ratings pulse.

Nolan is the news director at KHWB, Channel 39, and he says that by August he'll be putting on the air a nightly half-hour newscast that will compete with Fox's 9 p.m. news.

He's hiring anchors, reporters, weatherpeople and sportscasters (no names yet, but some faces will be familiar to Houston viewers); he's overseeing the building of a newsroom, and he's saying all the right things about what he wants to do on the air.

"We won't be chasing every ambulance," he says. "I'm not talking about doing what's been labeled 'family-friendly' news, but you and I both know that there are way too many body bags on TV news these days."

Channel 39 is one of 22 stations owned by the company that publishes the Chicago Tribune, and all of them either have news shows or are developing them, says Nolan, who came to 39 from Fox and stints at other local stations.

Although his budget isn't near what the large local stations have, Nolan says there's enough to have a satellite truck and enough photographers that reporters won't have to shoot their own stories, as happened with the shoestring-budget attempt at news by Channel 51 a couple of years ago.

The good news is that Nolan knows what he wants, and he doesn't want to be a clone of the content-light and flash-heavy operations like Channels 2 and 13.

"We're going to be a Houston newscast, and we're going to focus on news and on weather. Sports will not be a main focus," he says. "If sports made you No. 1 [in the market], then Fox would have been No. 1 years ago."

The bad news is that the new show will debut almost ten years to the day of the debut of a previous attempt by 39 to do news, an attempt that failed miserably. Nolan says the Tribune is more committed to news than 39's previous owners, but every news director claims to have the full backing of his owners to do a classy, hard-hitting newscast.

Nolan isn't looking to set the ratings world on fire: The Tribune station in Dallas launched a newscast last year that is profitable by pulling about a 4 rating, he says. (The Fox station here pulls about a 9.5 for the first half hour of its show, he says.)

He'll be doing a "soft launch" of the show, trying to get bugs worked out before the station does much advertising about it.

"We've got brand-new equipment; we'll have shooters who will have never used it," he says. "We want to make sure we have a quality newscast before we shout about it from the mountaintops."

What are the chances that Houstonians will bother with a nonflashy newscast on a station not known for news? Nolan is crossing his fingers.

"I've always wanted to do a show like this, and now I have the chance," he says. "A year from now I'll either look real smart or I'll be out of a job."

Their Money's Green

Dan Patrick and the rest of the right-wing talk-show yakkers at his KPRC-AM regularly expound against the moral decay that is infesting this great nation of ours, how the youth of today are subjected to endless filth on their TVs, where talk shows regularly bring up disgusting subjects that no God-fearing person should have to be subjected to.

Apparently it's all right to advertise such shows, though.

There it was, in the middle of Patrick's morning show, a jocular ad from Channel 2 for Jerry Springer: "Pregnant by a Transsexual! Wait, that can't be right -- a transvestite, maybe, a drag queen, sure, but how could it be a transsexual? Oh, well, it's not my problem. Tune in today!"

Sure enough, Patrick came on after the break and said, "Did I hear what I think I just heard?" But instead of referring to the ad, he was talking about a network news report that Arkansas was about to execute a woman.

"Must be another woman with something on Bill Clinton," he joked, before resuming his tasteful, God-fearing, nonhypocritical programming.

No News Is Good News

The entire May 12 edition of the Houston Chronicle had a "we dare you to read this" quality to it, as if the paper were trying to demonstrate just how slow a news day can be.

The lead front-page story was bannered across the top: "Rupture of Pipeline That Closed West Loop to Be Investigated." The story by Dan Feldstein had some good information about the (two-week-old) incident, but the headline left us wondering how many pipeline ruptures that shut down the city's busiest freeway for seven hours would actually go un-investigated.

Other local front-page stories that day included a "railcar killer" trial update, some businessman giving a bunch of money to UT and, bizarrely enough, a story that Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams gave the middle finger at a press conference when asked where he would wear a Super Bowl ring (Adams pretended he would wear it there while showing it to former Mayor Bob Lanier, which apparently made it newsworthy).

And then in the sports section, the "Astros Notebook," by Joseph Duarte, tackled the pressing subject of how the team needs a wacky character to loosen up the locker room. According to the item: " 'We're trying to find him,' pitcher Shane Reynolds said. 'We don't know who he is yet, but that person has to step up. I think we're taking things too seriously. We need to loosen up a little bit.' "

That all sounded familiar somehow. Sure enough, three days before, there had been an "Astros Summary" item by Chron writer Carlton Thompson addressing the same pressing issue. Wrote Thompson: " 'We're trying to find him,' pitcher Shane Reynolds said. 'We don't know who he is yet, but that person has to step up. I think we're taking things too seriously. We need to loosen up a little bit.' "

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