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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 12, 2001

Broadcast news fights for viewers

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Daryl Huff stood in front of a television set in the KITV newsroom and lost count as one reporter after another at rival station KHNL reported live from the field for their 6 p.m. news show.

Under KGMB news director Bob Loy, anchors Jim Mendoza and Kim Gennaula will present a newscast that emphasizes important issues and investigative reporting.

Kyle Sackowski • The Honolulu Advertiser

Huff, who covers federal courts for KITV, was incredulous as he turned to his news director, Wally Zimmermann.

"I said 'Holy cow, Wally, look at all those lives they're doing.' And he said, 'You know, we're going to have to do that, too.' "

That was the beginning of the year at KITV, the ABC affiliate, which continues to sit a distant second place in the local TV ratings war. In the months that followed, "Wally was helping us adapt to the new style," Huff said. "We had started looking a little bit out of style compared to the rest of the country."

Then two weeks ago, Zimmermann was fired from KITV after 13 years. It was the latest in a series of ownership, management, personnel and presentation changes that continue to rattle Honolulu's four television news departments.

Three of the four news directors left this year. And an air of uncertainty hangs over CBS affiliate KGMB. Its new owner, Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications Corp., already has KHON, the Fox affiliate. Under federal rules against dual ownership, Emmis has to sell one of the stations by Oct. 1.

The newsroom shifts are critical because news shows help give stations their identity at a time when Honolulu's $70-$75 million television market is hurting, softened by cautious advertisers who are spending less. Several stations have laid off employees and left vacancies unfilled.

Lynne Mueller, KGMB's general manager, calls her news department no less than the "cornerstone, if not the foundation, of the station. It's our face. It's our image in the community."

After years of relative stability and predictability in local TV news, KHNL in April 1995 unveiled a fourth newscast that woke up the competition with an emphasis on slick graphics, quick-cut editing and lots of shots of reporters in motion.

KHNL later switched network affiliation from Fox to NBC and is on its fourth owner in six years. KHNL hired its third news director three months ago.

The emergence of KHNL's news team also opened the market for television talent and reshaped the anchor desks at every station except KHON, which continues to dominate ratings with its popular longtime anchor, Joe Moore.

Although KHNL remains in fourth place in the critical 6 p.m. ratings, reporters, producers and news directors around Honolulu keep watching it and — in some cases — stealing its ideas.

"Hawai'i has been lulled into accepting provincial and slow-moving news," said John Fink, KHNL's vice president and general manager. "Some people will watch television news almost as an afterthought. We want to give them something compelling so they'll switch over."

Fink gets defensive about his ratings. He insists that younger viewers, who are more attractive to advertisers, prefer KHNL.

Moore and executives at Channel 2 don't buy it.

Last month, in a letter to the editor in The Advertiser, Moore called Fink "an excuse-meister extraordinare ... After each TV ratings period, Advertiser readers can count on Fink to provide hearty laughs as he spins some pathetic excuse why his tied-for-last-place newscasts continue to trail so far behind the No. 1 Channel 2 News."

To which Fink replied: "It always sounds like an excuse to pinheads like Joe Moore. ... But this is a demographic-driven game."

All of the changes — particularly Mainland ownership of all four stations — have brought Hawai'i more in line with the rest of the television industry. It's an industry driven by companies that answer to Wall Street and rely on market research to decide how to present the news.

The result has been good for viewers, said Michael Rosenberg, president and general manager at KITV.

"All four stations are better today than they were five years ago," Rosenberg said. "Channel 8 (KHNL) might not be everybody's favorite and our news might not be everybody's favorite. But the product is better as a group than it was five years ago."

It can't possibly last, said Bruce Lindgren, a broadcast marketing consultant based in San Francisco. The size of the market simply cannot sustain such intensity over the long run, Lindgren said.

Honolulu, with television sets in 398,460 households, is the 72nd largest U.S. market after Rochester, N.Y., and just above Tucson, Ariz.

Four separate news departments "is very unusual given the size of the market," Lindgren said. "Ten years from now, I would say you're going to have two general stations and the rest would try to appeal to a much younger audience that doesn't really read newspapers and doesn't really watch a lot of television news, either."

News directors, general managers, reporters and photographers at the four stations at first said they preferred not to focus on their competitors. Then they went on to pick at the two extremes — front-runner KHON with Moore; and last-place KHNL.

Moore, they said, has fiercely loyal viewers.

"It's a very formidable task overtaking Joe," Rosenberg said.

The staffs at the other stations know what to expect from Moore and Channel 2. But they're often surprised at what they see coming out of KHNL.

"After the sadness of losing Wally, people were looking to the future and wondering what's next," said KITV's city hall reporter Keoki Kerr. "People wanted to know, are we going to become Channel 8 (KHNL)? We don't want that. They've gone down a tabloid road that many of us don't want to follow."

Bob Loy, a veteran Hawai'i investigative reporter and KGMB's new news director, believes that KHNL has "abandoned content coverage and seems to be championing style over substance. "They use a lot of flying graphics and sound effects and live shots that don't make sense," he said. "I don't think the viewers of Hawai'i will fall for that kind of flashy style if there's no substance to back it up."

Loy has been in his new job for three months and knows "the job expectancy of a news director in American television is not that long."

Under his direction, KGMB will boil down stories "that waste viewers' time," Loy said. "In other words, crimes, spot news stories and meaningless debates that really have little impact on people's day-to-day lives. We'll cover them, but we won't cover them with the same kind of depth you see on most television stations."

Loy instead wants to fall back on his own experience. He plans to hire a full-time investigative reporter and give reporters more time to develop issues on important beats, such as education.

It's a formula that Loy knows will not guarantee higher ratings.

"I've decided that this is the honorable path to take," Loy said. "Style over substance is the wrong approach. This is our obligation as a journalistic organization."

Seth Feldman also has been in his new job as KHNL's news director for three months, after spending more than a year in Aruba. He wants KHNL viewers to identify with the station's slogan of "Live, local, late breaking."

Feldman worked at stations on the Mainland, where he heard that Hawai'i was mired "in a very traditional market, a very conservative market."

"I was aware coming in that making change wouldn't be easy and not everybody would buy into it," Feldman said. "I want us to be more aggressive, more late-breaking, frankly more exciting than the competition. Not by sensationalizing, not by making news up. But by producing a better product day in and day out."

Guy Hagi won't be part of whatever comes next at KHNL. His contract as the co-anchor/weatherman for KHNL's morning news show wasn't renewed after 6 1/2 years.

Hagi has other options, which he declined to discuss. But because he's married to KGMB anchorwoman Kim Gennaula, he's limited to staying in Hawai'i.

If he ends up at another Honolulu station, Hagi knows that viewers will continue to ask him why the faces of television news keep changing.

"All the time, people make comments about being confused," Hagi said. "I tell them I don't know why ... It's like when I catch a wave surfing. I've got to ride it the best I can. I can't worry about the other guy."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.