Broadcaster revisits experimental past
KTLA general manager Vinnie Malcolm is the first to admit that his TV station is in transition.
The decline and ultimate demise of the WB tripped up the station’s primetime sked, which is just starting to find its legs as the CW.
Also, after years of airing the top-rated off-net syndie fare, much of that programming (including “Seinfeld”) has migrated to station rivals.
Meanwhile, an “American Idol”-fueled KTTV — KTLA’s chief competish — has pulled ahead in the 10 p.m. and morning news races.
And then there’s the whole drama surrounding the ownership change at Tribune — which may or may not impact whether the station must be sold.
“The last couple of years, it became the perfect storm,” Malcolm says. “We’re not getting the product supply that we used to get. Combine that with the fact that the WB was starting to decline, and we were going to struggle.”
But Malcolm believes the business is cyclical — and KTLA is making programming, production and technology modifications to keep up with the rapid changes.
“As a business, it’s still relatively healthy, but it’s about having the product,” he says. “We’re buying time and holding on until we can get that new product. At the same time, you tweak or fix what you can control.”
As recently as the start of the decade, KTLA was the third-biggest biller among Los Angeles TV stations, Malcolm says. That’s no longer the case — but Malcolm says the station still does well.
In many ways, KTLA is a victim of its own success. When it launched in 1991, the “KTLA Morning News” stunned the industry by beating big network competitors like “Good Morning America” and “Today” in Los Angeles.
But that mega-success spawned imitators across the country and challenges locally, with the popular “Good Day L.A.” on KTTV eventually giving “KTLA Morning News” (now known as the “KTLA Morning Show”) a run for its money.
KTLA recently expanded “Morning Show” to three hours (just as “Good Day L.A.” did). And Malcolm is looking to expand KTLA’s newsgathering presence by looking at ways to capture more video of breaking news.
“I’ve been telling my engineers that we need to have more cameras out there,” he says. “It’s about capturing more things in this broad metropolis. Imagine if we had access to video everywhere.”
In an age of 24-hour news Web sites, Malcolm says the station is also rethinking how it produces its flagship 10 p.m. newscast.
“We’re trying to focus on making sure we’re different, and not only give the news but further the story or come at it from a different angle,” he says. “It can’t just be the facts at 10 p.m. again.”
Changing technology has already altered the broadcasting process. KTLA recently began broadcasting its newscasts in high-definition — the second local outfit (behind KABC) to go HD.
The station also produces more Web video content — for its own site as well as its crosstown sibling, the Los Angeles Times.
What’s more, this year KTLA experimented with Web-only programming by producing its annual Oscar special exclusively for the Internet.
“We need to enter that space and get our product on various platforms,” Malcolm says. “Part of that is to transform ourselves from being just two newscasts — we’re used to going on in the morning and then closing up until the evening. I’m trying to get my folks to think of themselves as a media company with multiple platforms.”
KTLA also is looking to keep up with the demographic shift in Los Angeles and make sure the station is catering to that audience — while not turning its back on loyal viewers. It’s a tough order — the station drew criticism, for example, when it opted to demote and then replace longtime Rose Parade co-host Stephanie Edwards with “KTLA Morning Show” co-host Michaela Pereira in 2006 and this year.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell us that L.A. is changing,” Malcolm says. “We need to provide product that appeals to that change.”
Meanwhile, Malcolm is scouting for off-net fare and other programming that might boost KTLA’s numbers. He notes that only a few years ago, KTLA was riding high in early and late fringe timeslots thanks to its stable of syndie hits.
“That took care of a lot of problems,” Malcolm says. “We were very dependent on syndicated product, much more than a traditional network affiliate. It’s a different formula.”
When that programming began to decline — and the pipeline grew bare, as the networks stopped churning out megahit laffers — it hit KTLA hard, Malcolm says. What’s more, his key syndie shows — “Friends” and “Sex and the City” — can also be found on cable (in both cases, TBS).
This fall, KTLA hopes to turn the tide with the addition of new off-net entries “Two and a Half Men” and “Family Guy.”
As for the Tribune change, Malcolm calls the recent acquisition by real estate baron Sam Zell “a solid strategy” on the parent company’s part.
“I still feel we have strong, solid assets, primarily big-market stations with good product and good brand recognition,” he says.
As KTLA enters its 61st year, Malcolm says he remains cognizant of the station’s trendsetting history as he tackles new ways to grow revenue and connect with the audience.
“A lot of things have changed (about KTLA), but a lot of things haven’t,” Malcolm says. “We’ve always been scrappy. We’re not afraid to experiment. We’re going to try different things — some will work and some won’t.”