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With the station struggling in news and other dayparts, KCBS-TV got its latest in a long line of general managers Friday.

Bill Applegate, a 24-year TV news vet who was fired as a reporter at KNXT (now KCBS) in a mass shake-up nearly two decades ago and ran CBS O&O WBBM-TV in Chicago for the past three years, has returned to Los Angeles to take over the third-place station.

The move is expected to drastically heat up the TV news wars in the market, where KCBS has been out of the game for years.

Applegate replaces Steve Gigliotti, VP-G.M. of KCBS since May 1991, who was demoted to his previous No. 2 position of VP-station manager. A veteran of the sales department, Gigliotti is expected to devote much of his attention to shoring up the station’s lagging sales operation.

The shake-up in L.A. set off a chain reaction throughout the CBS Television Stations wing, with CBS O&O prez Johnathan Rodgers naming Robert McGann, G.M. of the CBS-owned WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, to run WBBM and 32-year-old WCCO exec news director John Culliton to head the Minneapolis station.

Rumors had been circulating for months that a top-level change was brewing at KCBS. The speculation intensified as the search dragged on for a news director to replace the controversial John Lippman, who was axed just before the start of the May sweeps.

Applegate said Friday that his first priority will be to find a news director and “take a long, serious look at the newscast to decide whether it is properly positioned or not.”

Competition emphasized

In the new general manager’s address Friday to KCBS news staffers, Applegate said it was important for the station to be competitive “head-to-head” with KABC-TV and KNBC-TV.

Many took that to mean that Applegate may seek to launch a 4-5 p.m. newscast. The slot is currently occupied by Tribune Entertainment’s syndicated “Geraldo.”

Applegate didn’t mention a new newscast during an interview, but emphasized that early fringe would be a big priority.

Even though there is “precious little syndicated product available these days in the marketplace,” Applegate said the station has a “need to find or develop programs that can compete against what amounts to an 800-pound gorilla”– in other words, KABC’s “Oprah Winfrey Show.”

If Applegate goes ahead with the newscast and moves “Geraldo” back an hour to 3 p.m., the show’s national ratings could suffer and lower the barter rates that Tribune charges advertisers.

It could be some time before a news director arrives at KCBS. Applegate said that many of the best news directors are locked under long-term contracts.

One of the most frequently mentioned candidates, WCCO news director John Lansing, is needed in Minneapolis now that Culliton has been upped to G.M., according to Rodgers.

Once the new news director is brought on, KCBS will have a big rebuilding job. The station made some ratings gains under Lippman’s much-criticized tabloid format, but it lost its momentum going into the May sweeps.

Applegate is also known as a tabloid practitioner — a word that he said has gotten a bad rap — but his style differs from that of Lippman.

Before he plunges head first into repairing KCBS’ news, Applegate said he wants to get reacquainted with the Southern California market. There is a debate among local news directors whether L.A. has gone from a lifestyle town to a news town, a factor that will play a large part in how the city is covered.

In Chicago, conceded to be a news town, Applegate took WBBM’s 10 p.m. news — the most important newscast in the market — from a distant third in the ratings when he arrived at the station in October 1990 to a three-way tie for first in the February sweeps.

When WBBM’s late news sank back into third in the May sweeps, the station blamed it on CBS’ prime time performance and the strength of the NBC stations thanks to the final episode of “Cheers.” But competitors attributed the decrease to viewers growing tired of Applegate’s style of news.

Robert Feder, a TV columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times, credited Applegate with “changing the face of Chicago TV news.”

“He did so to a greater extent than any of the TV executives ever seen in this market,” Feder said. “He turned around not just the station … but the whole market.”

Although WBBM was No. 3 when Applegate arrived at WBBM, Feder said, “He was the leader. The others couldn’t emulate what he was doing fast enough.”

One of Applegate’s tactics included putting the lottery drawing in the middle of the late news. Competitors cried foul, but the ratings took a big jump.

The columnist noted that Applegate has “flamboyant instincts” that were kept in check during the reign of news director Mark Hoffman, who left WBBM after the February sweeps to become news director of KNBC.

When Hoffman left, Feder said the newscast was somewhat out of control but never completely went over the edge. It’s since been toned down.

“He never claimed to be doing journalism with a capital J. … There’s something refreshing and straightforward (about his style),” Feder said. “He came into the market and said, ‘My job is to lift the ratings.’ ”

Live and compelling

Applegate thinks TV news should do what it does best: be live and compelling. It “is certainly not as competent as the print press … in doing in-depth pieces,” he said. “Besides, the audience doesn’t tolerate it. But that doesn’t mean we have to do the Police Gazette.”

The type of news that Applegate and Hoffman did as a tandem in Chicago, which involves getting quickly into the program and a heavy emphasis on fast-paced news upfront, is now on display at KNBC.

In terms of Gigliotti’s new role, Applegate said he “will be invaluable for me.”

Rodgers described Gigliotti’s new role as one of providing Applegate with assistance in sales, community affiars, promotion and programming.

The former G.M. said he was comfortable with the changes and was glad to be part of the team that will oversee the station.

Applegate views his return to L.A. as something of a personal triumph. He was one of 30 news staffers axed by KNXT in the early 1970s in what became known as the “galvanic skin test massacre.” The term refers to when the station wired up a theater audience watching its news personalities and measured their response.

“I’ve been waiting 17 years to come back,” he said.