Local TV stations step up the spending in competition for viewers
By Jim Kershner
If the Spokane TV news business is a war, then all three stations are simultaneously invading Cambodia.
“War” is overstating the case, but TV news is a tough and competitive business. And it’s getting tougher and more competitive; all three stations have dramatically raised the level of competition in the last three months.
Tune in to any newscast for visible evidence. Suddenly, all three stations have new sets and graphics. These are big-ticket capital outlays (you might be surprised when you find out how big), and they symbolize how the stakes have been raised in local TV.
Michael Espinoza, the new KXLY-Channel 4 executive news director, has some perspective on the overall level of TV news in town. In September, he came to Spokane, the nation’s 75th largest market, from Sacramento, the nation’s 20th. He noticed no drop in quality.
“Spokane is comparable in competition and look and professionalism to anything I’ve seen in the markets from 10 to 30,” said Espinoza. “You’d have to get into the Top 10 to see better.”
Quality and professionalism are in the eye of the beholder. But for a concrete illustration of how competition has forced everyone to step up the spending, look no farther than the big, lumbering satellite truck.
Three years ago, no station in Spokane had one of these behemoths, which can broadcast live from practically any site in North America. Then KHQ-Channel 6 got one in 1992. The other stations were virtually forced to catch up to stay competitive. KXLY got one last year, and now KREM-Channel 2 has purchased a satellite truck and is in the process of renovating it.
Paul Brandt, news director of KREM, says it is rare for a market of this size to have three satellite trucks, which he called “extraordinarily expensive.” They can cost anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000.
Other big capital outlays have been introduced gradually over the past few months, and most of them are now in place for the beginning of the February sweeps on Thursday.
Here’s what each station has unveiled:
Two months ago, the station replaced its 10-year-old set, one that Brandt jokingly referred to as “maybe the oldest set in TV.”
The new set features an artist’s mural of Spokane and another mural of the Columbia River.
“We’re trying to reflect the area we serve,” said Brandt. “It’s viewer-friendly, not high-tech.”
How important is a new set?
“It doesn’t have a lot to do with journalism,” said Brandt. “But it does have a lot to do with communication.”
Brandt said he was surprised by the large amount of viewer comment about the set – all positive, he said.
The station also introduced new graphics at the same time. Graphics are probably even more important in terms of creating a station’s identity.
Also, the station has added a new weather feature called 3-D Weather, a graphic that simulates a fly-over of the region, showing clouds and weather patterns. This is a service provided by a national company (KXLY has the same thing, in a different version).
In addition, KREM is entering the leading edge of TV technology: computerized digital editing. They already have one digital editing pod, and within a few years, they will be able to operate completely without video tape. KREM’s sister station, KHNL in Honolulu, will go tapeless soon and become the first station in the country to do so.
When it comes to sets, this station went for the Cadillac. The backdrop is an artist’s etching of the Spokane skyline on clear Lexan plastic. Video monitors flicker and glow behind it.
Another backdrop consists of a large, four-screen video wall. The entire desk mechanism pivots so it can give “a variety of looks with a variety of shows,” said Lon Lee, KHQ general manager.
“It started with us saying, `Let’s freshen up the set we have,’ but when we started looking around, we realized that the set reflected the set technology and design of the ’80s,” said Lee.
“But we had invested so much in news at this station, we wanted a set that reflected that.”
So they scrapped the old set entirely and hired a professional TV set designer from Los Angeles. Lee says it is one of only four “moving desk” sets in the country, and it wasn’t cheap.
“Sets always seem to cost more than they should,” said Lee. “It was close to six figures.”
Lee said a new set “cannot make you No. 1 or No. 3,” but it’s important because it’s “what you surround your people with every day.”
They, too, have gotten plenty of viewer comment. One viewer said, “Your new set looks like a network show,” which was, of course, exactly what they wanted to hear.
One set innovation in particular has made the news anchors happy.
Instead of having hot, harsh incandescent lights, the new set has a special kind of fluorescent lights that are not as blinding and much cooler. No longer will the anchors have to squint and sweat under a broiler.
The station also has introduced new graphics, which were designed to give the station a more professional and modern look.
This station also has a new set and new graphics, but here the emphasis is decidedly on the graphics.
The station has purchased a new computerized system called DP Max, which combines painting and animation with digital disc recording.
“Our system dated from the ’80s, and we could have just upgraded, but we went ahead and bought this,” said Espinoza. “It’s an expensive system. It cost in the low hundreds of thousands.”
But he said it is worth it, because graphics are so important in today’s broadcasting.
“This will affect the entire look of the station,” said Espinoza. “I’m a big believer in graphics, because they can enhance the telling of the story.
“I’m not a believer in sets as much, because they can’t.”
So instead of starting from scratch on the set, the station revamped and updated the old one.
“It’s changed to a more professional network look,” said Espinoza. “As long as it looks good and professional and modern, I’m happy.”
In addition to its own graphic system, the station also purchased two national graphic services. One is the same fly-over weather map that KREM has, although KXLY has an upgraded version that “flies” right over the city.
The other is “News In Motion,” a graphics service that provides illustration and animation to accompany news stories.
For instance, one recent “News In Motion” graphic showed, in animated form, how a tall building flexes and bends, and sometimes collapses, during an earthquake like the one in Japan.
KXLY has added an extra five minutes onto its 11 p.m. broadcast, pushing “Nightline” back to 11:35 p.m. Most of the extra time will be devoted to “Sports Extra.”
But the biggest expansion is yet to come. The station has purchased the lot behind the building to accommodate a major expansion of the studios.
Tuesday, January 31, 1995