Fox 16 News at Nine (First! Complete! Local!) has been on the air a bit more than four months. When we say “on the air,” we mean it: new talent, new equipment, new trucks and cameras and stationery. Though KLRT brass won’t say just how much getting their fledgling newscast out of the nest has cost, they will say that it runs easily into the millions.
They’ve done it their way. In a state where people are used to getting their news short, sweet and immediately prior to Leno, the station and parent-company Clear Channel are betting millions that they can not only re-invent the wheel, but place in the Indy 500. Where the other three stations start a half-hour of news flowing at 10 p.m., Fox 16 kicks off an hour earlier. Where everybody else seems to have trouble some nights filling a half hour, KLRT’s newscast is one full hour, with —unlike most one-hour operations across the country — an unwritten rule against recapping stories in the second half.
It’s all just expensive and outside-the-box-crazy enough to have most bean counters retching in the wastebasket on a daily basis. But there is a weird, infectious calm among KLRT’s decision-makers. Early ratings aren’t entirely discouraging.
Fox 16 News — Little Rock’s first new newscast since WB 42’s 9 p.m. effort went on the air in 1997 (only to sink in 1999) — went hot at 9 p.m., March 28. Tune in these days, and you might be surprised at what you see if you were a viewer in the first weeks after the launch. It wasn’t always smooth.
News Director Michael Fabac is a short man of easy smiles whose calmness perfectly matches his no-nonsense approach to gathering the news. The good news, Fabac is fond of saying, is that KLRT started with new equipment. That’s also the bad news, he quips.
In the beginning, KLRT was plagued by “technical difficulties;” lead-ins that didn’t lead in, cuts that didn’t cut, or cut too soon, all played out in living color before an audience they were supposed to wow and woo. While Fabac admits that problems were expected in the beginning, that still doesn’t make him squirm any less at the thought of them.
Chuck Spohn has been KLRT’s general manager for going on seven years. With Fabac, he oversaw the building of the news section from the floor up, a monumental task that consumed the better part of a year. It’s Spohn who brings up the on-air technical problems of the first weeks, the way a preacher might bring up his troubled past of wine, women and song to illustrate how far he’s come in the name of the Heavenly Kingdom.
More important, Spohn said, was what he saw in the staff during those early days of difficulty, how they came back at it every morning after getting “beaten up by technical problems” every night.
“That’s tough stuff,” Spohn said. “To put your chin on the line like that for the public and go okay, we’re making some mistakes here. This isn’t the way we want it to be, but damn it all, we’re still here, we’re coming back, and we’re going to keep trying.”
If those early missteps were hard for Fabac and Spohn off camera, they must have been something akin to a motorcycle gang beat-down for the people in front of it. Anchors Donna Terrell and Kevin Kelley, weatherman Troy Bridges or sports anchor David Raath are the station’s starting lineup, gathered from markets all over the United States.
When the four started in late March, they delivered their lines like denizens of the Hall of Presidents at Disney World: a little too loud, a little too happy, a little too much pepper on the ball. Terrell and Kelley sported accents like the sound of tearing a phonebook in half to these southern ears.
After a few weeks, though, they settled in, calmed down. Maybe they listened a little closer to the din of background voices when they went to the grocery store, or were simply infected a bit by the drawl. Now even the harshest critic couldn’t say they don’t look comfortable, both together and in their own skins.
Fabac says that fine fit among the staff, both on-air and off, is one of the benefits of “starting from zero.” He was allowed to hand-pick the roster from top to bottom — something he insisted on before agreeing to take the job.
Whether that talent will click with viewers has yet to be seen. That “click” is very important in any market, but especially true in Arkansas. It could be the most important thing.
Bob Steel has worked as a reporter, assistant news director and news director in the Little Rock market, working at both KARK and KATV. Now a media relations consultant at the advertising firm of Stone and Ward, Steel’s tenure as news director at KATV Channel 7 saw the station become the top dog in town. He said that making sure that KLRT’s talent reaches a “comfort level” with the viewer will be important in whether the station succeeds or fails. So far, he likes what he sees.
“I think [KLRT] has been slick, but they have been real. They have been genuine, and that’s key. You have to be a real person. Arkansans do not like phony people.”
A big part of winning that public trust and “realness,” says Doug Krile, is in getting your anchors before the public so that people can meet them. A popular KARK Channel 4 anchor from 1986 until 1997, Krile left the station to anchor the WB 42’s ill-fated 9 p.m. local newscast. Now corporate director of news and public Relations with Equity Broadcasting, he has seen both sides of the popularity coin.
Though Krile said word-of-mouth good feeling about an anchor can take years to spread with viewers, that face-to-face evaluation can mean the difference between people who let you into their homes every night, or slam the door in your face.
It’s a lesson KLRT has already taken to heart. Since March 28, the station has put their anchors into heavy rotation, spreading good will and smiling faces far and wide. Anchors Donna Terrell and Kevin Kelley say they’re going to as many as three or four public appearances a week. Over the July 4 weekend, anchor David Raath was the very visible host of the annual Firecracker Fast 5K run.
Station manager Spohn said that after 7 years of seeing KLRT’s good works not make a mental connection with viewers, it’s nice to be able to finally put faces with the station’s name. “We can put a graphic and a voiceover on the air that says, ‘Hey, Fox 16 is proud to present the 22nd annual Firecracker 5K,’” Spohn said. “But if we don’t have a real face to it, it just kind of blends in to the viewer as just another promotional spot. “
Still, for all KLRT’s community outreach, one thing that both Steel and Krile don’t see enough of are advertisements, billboards, things to keep them, as Krile says, “top of mind.” Said Steel: “You’ve got to remind people that you’re new and you’re there. Just don’t expect people to find you.”
Another thing that many agreed is crucial to making viewers feel that a station is part of the community is getting out of the city limits. Jim Pitcock was a news director at Channel 7 in Little Rock for more than 30 years. While he said that Fox 16 has so far done a “pretty good job,” especially in weather, he said that the station has a “coverage problem.”
“I think all four stations are guilty of this. They seldom go out into the state,” Pitcock said. “I think that’s a mistake… the stations that have been successful are the stations that didn’t know a county line. If it happened in the state, they had it.”
Spohn agrees that the station might have initially stayed close to home, but said that was a circumstance of not having contacts in the communities outside the city. As the station grows, Spohn said, so will the number of stories about outlying communities.
In a world of 24-hour national and international news stations, said Bob Steel, getting the news from around Arkansas is what local viewers tune in for. “I think that’s how you win,” said Bob Steel. “I can get national news from CNN, MSNBC. But the only thing I can’t get from those guys is what’s going on in Arkansas.”
Terrific sets, big time talent, and ambition are one thing, but as the hot rodders say: Chrome doesn’t get you home. Fox 16 is hoping all that money spent on flash will pay off in their gamble on an unproven model — an hour earlier than most, and one full hour against 30 minutes. With people so used to getting their news in 30 minutes and promptly at 10 p.m., the question is: What if you threw a newscast, and nobody came?
So far, Krile has been impressed by Fox 16’s showing .In the May ratings book just released, KLRT garnered a 2 rating and 3 share at 9 (by way of comparison, KATV and KTHV, currently dueling for first place in the market, drew a 12 rating/24 share and a 12 rating/23share respectively at 10 p.m.). While most station managers might dive to the bottom of a bottle and/or find a pinkslip in their locker if they drew numbers like that, for a startup — one that debuted less than four weeks before the May ratings period began — it’s fantastic news. They made a showing.
Even better, says Krile, it appears that the station is creating an audience for itself — drawing viewers not taken from the other three stations. “I was really impressed that no one else suffered to get those ones and twos and threes,” Krile said. “To me, that shows a stronger newscast than if they had just pulled some sampling away. By creating that audience, you’ve got a better chance of holding on to that audience long-term.”
The long term is the thing, one that will become especially crucial in the fall, when the networks roll out their new programming. Right now, the dial is full of re-treads. What happens when KLRT 16 at 9 p.m. goes up against new episodes of everybody’s favorite shows in the fall: “ER,” “CSI,” or — God forbid — cable?
Susy Robinette is a reporter at Des Moines’ KDSM Fox 17. In March 2001, when the Iowa station launched a one-hour 9 p.m. newscast similar to KLRT’s, she served as the station’s news director. Robinette said that going up against network programming in the fall is not easy. Usually, if someone watches half of a 9 p.m. drama, they’re not going to turn away to watch the news.
One thing that helped, said Robinette, is the very thing Krile and Steel say KLRT is not doing enough of: advertising. “You’ve got to try and make your name out there and let people know there’s a newscast at 9 o’clock,” she said.
And what about that full hour?
While everyone at KLRT is willing to defend the one-hour format to the death, Jim Pitcock said the station has taken a big bite. He should know. Pitcock was in charge when KATV made its attempt at a one-hour newscast, from 1974 to 1981. Ratings slumped steadily, and took what Pitcock called an “immediate, just overnight” recovery after the station returned to the 30-minute format (Bob Steel, who was a reporter at KATV during those years, said the saying around the station in those days was: “An hour is a terrible thing to waste”).
In response to hearing about Pitcock’s hard times with the one-hour format, folks at Fox 16 promise more and better news content. Maybe they’ve got a point, at least if they’re gunning for the information addict demo. While news director Michael Fabac said he hasn’t added it up, he estimates that on an average night Fox 16 devotes around 30 minutes of its hour to news (including local and international news, and rotating segments on local business, family news, etc) with 3 to 5 minutes each for sports and weather. By comparison, KTHV Channel 11’s three news blocks encompass 18 minutes of news, and three minutes each of weather and sports.
Still, hardcore news junkies aside, what does an hour mean to the average viewer who just wants the headlines, the weather, who won, and then the cool side of the pillow?
The key to making the hour work for Fox 16, said Dr. David Guerra, a professor in the Radio, TV and Film Department at UALR, will be filling it with interesting and dynamic stories. “In Little Rock, there’s enough going on, depending on how they present the news, that an hour could possibly work,” said Guerra. “But in that hour, they need to have, obviously, the local hard-hitting news, but they also have to create some series and features and so forth so the hour is taken up with good content.”
Krile said that while the hour works for KLRT, he doesn’t like how it is formatted, admitting that he often doesn’t stick around for the full hour. Given that the 9 o’clock audience is an entertainment audience, most staying on after Fox’s often younger-skewing 8-9 p.m. programming, Krile said he might think about lending a strong entertainment quality to the second half of the newscast, blocking out three or four minutes for “entertainment lifestyle” news, or focus more on business.
While both Spohn and Fabac say that the station has so far had no problem finding enough news to fill the hour, Guerra said the station also needs to make sure it goes for depth. “One of the criticisms of television news is that it’s been too headline-ish, not deep enough, Guerra said.
Depth is a word on Chuck Spohn’s mind as well. He said a good example of how Fox 16 has used the hour to provide more depth was during President Bush’s last stop in the state. While most stations gave the story 30 seconds or so, KLRT went deep. “Having an hour gave us the ability to give a recap of the president’s remarks,” Spohn said. “Then we went to Washington via satellite and got a Capitol Hill point of view, and [also] had Congressman Vic Snyder in our studio for an even more localized view of that speech. That’s pretty damned cool.”
If an hour format is problematic, the 9 p.m. start is greeted with more warmth by outsiders.
Surprisingly, Krile, who was part of a failed 9 p.m. newscast, in particular sees KLRT’s use of the nine p.m. slot as a smart move. Krile said WB 42’s failure was more a problem of timing than timeslot. The WB 42 newscast was launched too early in the genesis of the station, Krile said, a problem the nearly 20-year-old and well-watched KLRT won’t have.
“I think it is smart for a Fox station. To go head-to head with the other guys, it just takes too long to pull people away,” Krile said.
Bob Steel, too, sees the 9 p.m. slot as a plus. With their different timeslot, Fox 16 won’t be last in the news ratings, but the only game in town.
Pitcock, however, says that the status quo might be too hard to overcome, especially among regular news viewers. “The hardest thing in the world to break is a habit,” Pitcock said. “The people in Little Rock are used to watching the news at 10 o’clock. “
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” said David Guerra. “They will capture quite a few people who want to get to bed early. They will capture other people who might want to kind of finish up their entertainment programming and just watch some news.”
Speaking to people at Fox 16 News gives you some idea about why perfectly normal people end up joining cults. Their enthusiasm and drive is infectious. Their confidence in Fox 16 News is like a slab of marble, something that is both without blemish and which can crush the doubt right out of you. Of course, it’s also still fresh and new. A visit in a year might be more telling.
If Fox 16 was a cult, Chuck Spohn would be the one with the guitar and all the great ideas about the Almighty. Talking to him about the station and its unconventional model, you start out believing it might work, then you start believing it can work, and by the time you shake hands and tell him goodbye, you believe it will work, undoubtedly, come hell or high water, Amen. Like all good showmen, Spohn knows that taking you to the circus is not enough. His job is to make you want to run away with it. For him, it will succeed not because the polls tell him so, or because it has worked elsewhere, but simply because failure is not an option.
“It is not even a point of contention. It’s is not even occupying one brain cell in my brain to even think of it,” Spohn said. “The world has changed, there’s a new appreciation for information. If hour formats are so bad, then how can places like CNN survive in 24 hour formats?”
If you were there, you’d believe him, too.