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KCOP’s ‘Real News’ breaks with tradition

On Monday, KCOP will unveil the most drastic departure from a traditional newscast in Los Angeles, and perhaps the nation, since KCBS-TV launched a disastrous “news wheel” format that quickly went flat in late 1986.

The Chris-Craft/United indie hopes to avoid the pitfalls that befell the O&O by structuring a hybrid format–dubbed “Real News”–that is a cross between a nightly local newsmagazine and a more customary newscast.

The setting for the prime time news program, which is currently in last place in L.A., will also change, as the station abandons the normal anchor desk in favor of roving anchors in a newsroom.

In fashioning a new format, KCOP hopes to capture viewers in the 35-45 age range who are likely to tune in for its firstrun offerings–which expanded to three nights a week this season–such as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “The Untouchables.”

For the newscast to be profitable, KCOP station manager Rick Feldman is hoping to boost the 10 p.m. newscast’s ratings in primary demos from mostly 1s now to 2s and 3s.

The indie would like to see some ratings growth by the end of the year, but Feldman says it will give the newscast two years to really prove itself.

Nearly three years in the making, the revived format emphasizing content over personalities is the brainchild of Jeff Wald, KCOP’s executive director of news programming.

The station lured Wald away from dominant news indie KTLA in March 1990 with big bucks and gave him the opportunity to build a totally new concept in local news.

First, however, KCOP had to lay out more than $ 10 million in capital improvements, including the construction of a new studio complex, and commit to an annual budget that will be in the $ 7 million-$ 10 million range.

It also more than doubled the size of its original 35-person news staff and doubled its fleet of news trucks to at least a dozen–all with four-wheel drive and live capability and two with satellite ability.

The four-wheel drive satellite truck the indie purchased is believed to be the only one of its kind, enabling the station to get to tough-to-reach places like mud-swamped Tijuana after last week’s devastating floods.

KCOP also purchased a 20-by-20-foot trailer, one of only a half-dozen in use by broadcasters in the country, that was designed for the military and can fit into the cargo hold of a 727 jetliner for remote assignments.

The project experienced setbacks along the way. The worst blow came in September 1991 following the murder of news engineer Jeffrey Webreck, a close friend Wald had brought over from KTLA to design the new state-of-the-art news facilities.

Until the station could recruit a new engineer, plans for the ambitious project had to be put on hold. The usual construction delays caused further setbacks.

In assembling the new format, Wald borrowed some elements from Toronto’s slick, fast-paced CITY TV news format, which also embraces the concept of roving anchors.

Other stations in the U.S. have modified the format for themselves, but Wald insists KCOP is the only one to employ the long-form newsmagazine style in a nightly newscast.

“We spent the last 2 1/2 years on this,” Wald said. “We’ve had a lot of meetings, philosophical discussions, and have had a good look at what the market looks like. We came up with this concept, which we think will be imitated by stations all over the country once it hits its stride.”

Because L.A. is a unique collection of communities rather than a single, unified city like other markets, Wald acknowledges the “Real News” format would not work in places such as New York or San Francisco.

Before anyone looks at it, Wald must work out the inevitable kinks.

“This is news, not an entertainment show that you give 13 weeks and then pull the plug,” he says. “It will take a great deal of work and coordination.”

If it proves successful, KCOP will first expand its weekend newscasts from 30 minutes to an hour. Although the station would look at other dayparts for possible expansion, Feldman notes the station can make a “healthy profit” with just a 10 p.m. nightly news.

KCOP will begin by abandoning the “formula fashion” in which most TV news shows have been produced–including the old “Eyewitness News” format that relied heavy on visuals at the top of show and operated under the motto “If it bleeds, it leads”–to focus on more in-depth subjects.

“The amount of time (a subject gets) will be proportionate to how good the story is,” Wald said.

To accomplish its goal, the indie will allocate its resources differently. Wald will break up the assignment desk, dividing the station’s 10 crews so that five cover breaking news and five are assigned to the enterprise unit– which will emphasize long-form think pieces–on any given day.

Wald is acutely aware that the last time a station in the market drastically altered the traditional TV news format, it proved to be a calamity.

KCBS’s short-lived “news wheel” compartmentalized the news into 10-minute segments (weather, sports, business, etc.), regardless of whether the topics merited more or less attention.

KCOP will avoid that trap by allowing its format to contract or expand, depending on the events of the day.

In terms of presentation, Wald says he is eliminating the anchor sitting behind a desk and graphics hanging in midair because they are distracting to viewers.

The tactic has been tried before. Many years ago, George Puttnam used the standing-anchor concept at KTTV, saying it provided him with more energy. KCBS (then KNXT) took anchors out of the studio for a brief time in the 1970s, too, but Wald recalls that they still relied on the graphics hanging in the air.

Some competitors, however, question whether viewers will buy into KCOP’s new strategy–particularly an anchor wondering over to the assignment desk to grab breaking news from an editor. Wald expects it to work, but asked for patience.

“Everything takes time,” he said. “Look at KCAL-TV. When they started (with their three-hour prime time newscast), they were a laughing stock. They certainly are not the laughing stock any more.”

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