Houston TV Ratings War
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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 $44 million. All five Corinthian television stations are highly profitable, and this tight-fisted approach is reflected in every department.
While one Houston television station had $250,000 to promote just its news department, KHOU had $100,000 to promote all departments. While the competition used modern, twelve-pound, hand-held cameras, and sound gear, newsmen at KHOU struggled along with 40-pound, eight-year-old anachronisms.
Salaries were lower at KHOU. The late Bill Enis, sportscaster at KPRC, made close to $50,000 while the top man at KHOU pulled in $25,000. The lowest paid on-the-air personality at Channel 2 was paid in the neighborhood of $35,000 while his counterpart at Channel 11 was making $18-20,000. Channel 2’s popular Steve Smith recently left a $35,000 salary and a highly profitable five p.m. talk show for $70,000 in Pittsburgh.
KHOU’s production gaffes became instant fodder for cocktail jokes. Getting film stories of the day’s news on the air is a complex job, requiring about twenty professionals, each doing his job flawlessly. At times, key members of the engineering and production staff at KHOU had been employed no more than two weeks. High school kids ran highly complex equipment because management would not spend the money for professionals.
KHOU’s news staff was the smallest while it was number one and remains the smallest. Today, KHOU has 23 newsmen; KTRK, 33; KPRC, 34. To its credit, management never deceived staffers about money, either the lack of it or the importance of making it. Newsmen were expected to work harder at KHOU, and for less salary.
By last summer, top-level Corinthian officials had watched the ratings slip long enough and decided to act. Jim Richdale, president of Corinthian’s Television Stations Division in New York, would return to KHOU September 1 as president and general manager, a position he had held for ten years before being promoted.
The general manager for five years. Dean Borba, was told by his bosses on the way to the airport that they were returning Richdale to Houston and that Borba was fired.
But Borba had to play the game for six weeks. If he was to receive his extremely attractive severance pay offer, he had to state that he and Richdale would both run the station for a while and then on September 1, announce his resignation. For that he received a full year’s severance pay plus written assurances that if he took a job during the year that paid less than his present salary, KHOU would make up the difference.
Next, Borba’s wife Joy Noufer, a former Mrs. America (while married to Chuck Noufer) and hostess of Channel 11 ’s Noon Show, was told not to return after her vacation, which began September 10.
In sales, Borba had fired sales manager Grant Norlin in May, telling associates that Norlin had never understood sales management, and had lost control of the sales situation. In July, WCBS Sales Manager Marvin Shapiro was hired as sales manager to stop losses which amounted to more than $200,000 in one month.
Early in August, Promotion Director Jim Grobe left to become field director for Lassiter Productions and in September, News Director Dick John resigned to form a public relations firm.
Also adding to the station’s woes was the January departure of popular noon talk show hostess Joanne King to Channel 2.
The current News Director John Davenport, felt good vibrations when he moved into the job in late November. He says that Richdale had equipment purchases, raises, and an increased promotional budget working by the time he, Davenport, began work.
In terms of salaries, Davenport says “we are now on a par with other TV news stations in Houston.” Purchased and in action are five new CP-16A sound cameras, new film editing facilities, and revamped police radio systems. The station’s annual promotion budget has been upped to $250,000, says Davenport.
“I found chaos,” he says about his arrival, listing no beat reporters, no assignment board, no permanent assignments editor, and no permanent producer for news programming as missing classical ingredients of TV news work.
Richdale, Davenport and KHOU initiated a format change March 4 after a survey taken for the station reported an untapped news audience interested in viewing “hard news,” as opposed to local “soft news” programs, at 5 p.m. Channel 1l’s afternoon news format runs like this now: 5 p.m. “hard news” direct from the station’s newsroom, with a kind of shirt-sleeve approach; at 5:30 p.m. to Walter Cronkite’s CBS newsroom; and, at 6 p.m., back to Channel 1l’s newsroom for more local news programming.
Davenport continues to feel optimistic, but he knows his future depends on success in the ratings battle. He put his name and telephone number on the assignments board not long after he arrived, with the observation that his name was on his office door in stick-on letters.
“If I don’t succeed, hell, they’ll get somebody else, which is to be expected. But I’m not sitting here quaking in fear everyday. Jim Richdale has worked wonders for this station, and we have great optimism,” says Davenport.
Despite its past problems and present uphill battle, KHOU has continued consistently to turn out the best human interest features of the three stations, particularly from veteran San Francisco reporter Bill Balleza.
Meanwhile, Richdale and top officials in Corinthian’s New York offices continue to look for a turnaround in the ratings while they watch the bank account grow larger and larger.