Changing Channels

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

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.

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D.J. Wilson