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Pulling the plug… on local television programs

September 10, 1986

High cost, lack of ad support limit Spokane’s locally produced offerings

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

With every new fall TV season comes the expected promotions. But this year, amid the bragging about new shows and hot series, something will be missing.

You won’t hear about KREM’s “Sunday Evening” or KHQ’s “Upfront,” locally produced programs that are slip-sliding off the screen this fall.

Both shows demonstrate how risky a business it is for local TV stations to produce shows that don’t fit into the tried-and-true commercial formulas.

In fact, Spokane television stations seem to regard locally produced programs as a costly venture and a source of headaches.

“Sunday Evening” stayed on the air for a year and a half, and proved to be a hit with viewers. Hosted by reporters Mary O’Connell and Jim McLaren, the TV news magazine gave audiences extended coverage of local news and personalities that regular reports could only mention in passing.

But the show cost plenty to produce. Station management decided to put the show “on hiatus,” telling O’Connell and McLaren that the show’s final date will be Sept. 28.

After that, the two will work full time on reporting and anchoring assignments for KREM’s regular newscasts.

At competitor KHQ, station program director Larry Gants and station management throttled down another Sunday evening information show, the issue-oriented talk program “Upfront.”

“Upfront,” which Gants says is patterned after Seattle’s popular “Town Hall” discussion show, has been sliced from weekly to once a month.

The show had been on the air since the fall of 1985 but had never generated strong audience support. Gants said he’d like to see “Upfront” return to a weekly if more advertiser support were found and if production difficulties could be ironed out.

“Upfront” tried to offer informed debate on such issues as abortion, pornography, and drugs. Producer Rich Cowan and facilitator Cal Fankhauser confronted problems in finding the appropriate spokesmen for both sides of an issue, said Gants.

Gants said also that businesses weren’t keen on advertising on the show. ‘They weren’t sure they wanted the association in the minds of viewers between their product and issues like marijuana use and abortion.”

He noted that the 60-minute show will remain in its current spot at 6 p.m. the first Sunday of each month. It is repeated Sundays at 6 a.m.

The erosion of “Upfront” and the shelving of “Sunday Evening” leave Spokane with a thin crop of locally produced programs. Here’s what’s left apart from occasional specials and documentaries:

•KHQ still produces a portion of the nightly “PM Magazine” show. The station spends a fair amount on its locally produced “PM” segments, but because of the show’s lightweight material and time spot – after the news and before evening network fare – the station’s costs are usually covered by advertising revenue.

•KHQ continues producing occasional “talking heads” interviews with decision-makers and news figures. The program “Sunday Journal” is produced by KHQ’s public affairs director Bob Briley, and airs about once a month.

Even then, added Gants, the show runs at no specific time. “Sunday Journal” can air anytime between sign-on and prime time depending on other scheduling.

KXLY-TV produces one local program on a regular basis during the football season. Sports announcer Bud Nameck hosts “Monday Night Quarterback,” a sports show, after each broadcast of the NFL Monday night game. KXLY’s last regular effort, “The Noon Show,” was dropped in early 1985.

KSKN-TV (UHF channel 22) produces “Talk It Over,” a 30-minute interview program hosted by station president Ellen Adelstein. It airs Sundays at 10 p.m.

KAYU-TV (channel 28) has its own Sunday news-talk effort, “Inland Empire Focus.” Hosted by public affairs director Louise Hansen, the 30-minute show follows a question-answer format. It will air at 4 on Sunday afternoons this fall.

•KAYU also produces nine weeks of Thursday-night football featuring high school games at Albi Stadium. Station general manager Bob Hamacher noted that if it weren’t for the advertising support of Rainier Bank, the cost of broadcasting the games would be prohibitive.

In contrast, KING-TV (KREM’s parent operation in Seattle) produces five hours of locally produced programs per week, ranging from sports shows to music and entertainment highlights. That number excludes news shows and segments taped by KING-TV for its version of “PM Magazine.”

It’s understood, however, that Seattle’s size makes all the difference. KING’s news staff alone has about 20 more people, for example, than the entire station staff of KREM in Spokane, noted Dennis Williamson, KREM general manager.

There’s little chance Spokane’s remaining locally produced programs will fall by the wayside, despite their dismal ratings. They’re cheaply made, involving a few hours of production time, and can be run more than once.

More importantly, those public affairs and interview shows satisfy a station’s obligation to provide the community with issue-oriented programming. Come station license renewal time, for instance, the FCC likes to see such programs as proof that the licensee has performed like a good community station.

Spokane, however, may have to wait until the economy picks up before seeing experiments like “Upfront” and “Sunday Evening” return to regular scheduling.

KREM’s GM Dennis Williamson tries to downplay the economic circumstances behind “Sunday Evening’s” departure. “There’s really no one to blame, not the advertisers, not the people who are putting the show together.”

The bottom line, he figures, is a positive discovery: “We did it as a prototype – an experiment to see if we could produce an all-local show that was issue-oriented and credible and entertaining enough to attract an audience.

“And the show demonstrated that,” Williamson said.

Viewer ratings prove his contention. The July Arbitron ratings book showed “Sunday Evening” easily won the Sunday 6:30 p.m. time slot in this market. In fact, the July book’s numbers were the highest the show ever garnered – with a 10 rating and a 31 share of the audience in the area this past summer. A 31 share, in layman’s terms, means 31 percent of those TV sets turned on at that hour were watching “Sunday Evening.”

It probably helped, too, that “Sunday Evening” was slotted directly before the news magazine by which all others are judged, CBS’s popular “60 Minutes.”

Whatever the reason, KHQ’s Gants calls “Sunday Evening’s” performance outstanding. “That rating is very good for a show like this.” By contrast, Gants said he had hoped – unsuccessfully – for “Upfront” to get anywhere near a 5 audience share during the past year.

What stopped “Sunday Evening” in its tracks, however, was the show’s complexity. Producing the show eventually became more than a 40-hour-week effort, O’Connell said. Committed to covering important and relevant issues adequately, the show’s two reporters and the production staff evolved into a costly unit that was not formally a part of either the station’s news or public affairs department.

Williamson said the show probably cost $150,000 to produce over the past year, with only two-thirds of that amount recovered by ad revenue.

Unlike the “Upfront” stigma, however, Williamson said selling time for “Sunday Evening” was not difficult. But to make the show self-sustaining, the station’s ad rates would have had to increase significantly. “For a show that only ran once a week, we could only charge so much. And so we knew from the start the show could never pay for itself,” Williamson said.

Rather than reduce the show’s budget and “impact the quality to an unacceptable level,” Williamson moved O’Connell and McLaren into full-time news roles at KREM. He predicted that their new assignments will result in more station documentaries and specials, the area of local programming outside news that KREM intends to concentrate on.

He also envisioned – at some future date – that KREM will revise the “Sunday Evening” concept and produce a local show with the same approach.

“We’ll try to take its best elements and perhaps add other features. Perhaps we’ll try presenting that new show more than once a week. I don’t know.”

Most TV station managers and programmers agree on the importance of locally produced programming. Hamacher at KAYU, in fact, calls local programming the critical effort that will determine the future of stations in markets the size of Spokane.

Still, all five of Spokane’s commercial stations need to look at budgets and bottom lines. Despite the relative value of “Upfront,” KHQ now will carry reruns of “M*A*S*H” and “Wheel of Fortune” three Sundays a month. And at KREM, “Sunday Evening” will give way to a syndicated show that Williamson still hadn’t chosen this week.

Gants, for one, regrets seeing the local Sunday evening program choices narrow this fall. “That’s a shame,” he said when hearing that KREM had pulled the “Sunday Evening” plug.

“And it’s a shame that we had to be opposite each other the past year. The people that would’ve watched one would probably have watched the other.”

Wednesday, September 10, 1986


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