Houston TV Ratings War

Fade in, interior six p.m. news set, long shot. As the picture comes closer, the familiar anchormen are relaxed and exchanging easy glances, preparing to bring you the latest news, sports, and weather. If you are standing close to the producer, you can hear the purr of his ulcer as no doubt he ponders how many of us out there are watching.

Tonight, however, the three newsmen look different. The normally sophisticated anchorman is wearing a papier-maché dog head; weather is a goose and sports, a pussy cat.

Good evening,” says the dog in his usual crisp basso profundo style. “The Pentagon reported today that American deaths in Viet Nam reached a new high of 43,000 as prospects for peace appeared dim.” There it is: the deaths of American servicemen being reported by an English-speaking dog.

Thus the cute, just-us-guys approach to nightly newscasting begun by WABC in New York was carried to the outer limits several years ago by a Midwestern television station, trying desperately to raise its sagging ratings.

The rating game is what television news is all about. With the possible exceptions of politics and sports, nowhere else in America is being number one as important. As a former television news director in Houston put it, “A lawyer doesn’t lose his job if he doesn’t have 51 percent of the legal business in town. Safeway can make a very handsome profit and not be outselling every other competitor, but in television, either you are first or you better know the reason why.”

In Texas, nowhere is this more evident than in the very lucrative, highly competitive news market found in Houston. In the two rating books used by all broadcasters and advertisers, Nielsen and ARB, number one is KPRC, Channel 2. Art Lord, NBC regional bureau chief, calls the station, “one of the best, if not the best NBC affiliate in the country.”

Number two is KTRK, Channel 13, the ABC affiliate. Already advancing, its tabloid news approach got a shot in the arm when it hired ex-deputy sheriff Marvin Zindler as its consumer reporter. In third place, the CBS affiliate, KHOU, Channel 11, is still trying to stabilize after a massive personnel change last summer. Three other stations complete the market: two independents, KHTV, Channel 39, and KVRL, Channel 26; and the PBS outlet, KUHT, Channel 8.

Broadway chronicler Damon Runyon used to say, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s a good way to bet.” Not too long ago, your bet as to the strongest and swiftest television station in Houston would have been placed on KHOU, Channel 11.

In the late Sixties with not much more than four stools and a gum-and-paper-clip-assembled set, anchormen and newscasters Dick John and Ron Stone, sportscaster Johnny Temple, and weatherman Sid Lasher kept Channel 11’s rating at number one largely on the strength of their personalities. Their advantage over the other two stations certainly wasn’t monetary. The station is owned by Corinthian Broadcasting Company whose parent company, Dun and Bradstreet, is one of America’s oldest and most successful corporations.

The philosophy of Corinthian correctly reflects the Wall Street flavor of D&B: profits first, news coverage second. Twelve years ago KHOU was valued at $10 million; today, its worth is estimated at

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