From AJR, September 2000 issue
TV Battles: Shuffling the Bay Area Lineup
Chronicle Publishing's sale of KRON-TV has had a major impact on the San Francisco television scene.
By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
T HE SHAKE-UP BEGAN soon after New-York based Young Broadcasting took control of San Francisco's KRON-TV from Chronicle Publishing at the end of June. No sooner had the $650 million in cash and $87 million in stock changed hands than several of the station's top news executives, including highly regarded News Director Dan Rosenheim, resigned. Some high-profile KRON newscasters even questioned the future of the station, and their own careers, on the air.
And perhaps most significant, KRON (Channel 4) will lose its NBC affiliation after refusing to pay the network $10 million a year for the privilege of airing its programming. Traditionally, networks pay affiliates to air their shows. But NBC is spearheading the drive for a so-called "reverse compensation," using tactics that some media watchers, like the San Francisco Chronicle's John Carman, have called "thuggish."
So, the NBC crown instead goes to KNTV (Channel 11), an ABC affiliate, which draws viewers from the Monterey-Salinas-Santa Cruz market south of the city. The switch means KNTV is beefing up its San Francisco coverage and strengthening its signal, in preparation for a local news battle in a bigger arena.
KNTV gave up its ABC ties in early July and will be an independent station until joining with NBC in January 2002, just in time to broadcast the Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City. KNTV is owned by Granite Broadcasting, a New York company that also owns WB affiliate KBWB in San Francisco.
But the NBC affiliation came with a price: $362 million over nine years, to be precise. That's four times the original deal NBC sought with KRON. It also means KNTV will become the Bay Area's NBC station, jumping from the country's 119th largest market to the fifth largest.
The question is: What happens now? Will KRON flourish as an independent station? Will KNTV, a station virtually unknown in the northern Bay Area, be able to pull in viewers used to turning to KRON for news?
"It's been a four-station news market in the past, and it's going to be a five-way battle in the future," says Carman, the Chronicle's television columnist. "The size of the pie isn't getting bigger, so the slices will probably get a little smaller."
Despite the immediate upper-management defections, acting News Director Stacy Owen says there's no sense of panic at KRON.
"This is a place where the strength has always come from the floor," Owen says. "Our reporting staff is the same; our middle management is the same.... There's no doubt there was an impact by the top-level management, but it hasn't changed our product."
KRON has consistently been the market's most-watched news broadcast at 11 p.m. (KTVU, the local Fox affiliate that was once an independent station, is the nighttime news leader with its 10 p.m. news broadcast.) KRON's day and evening news shows are also strong. Since many of the daytime shows are syndicated, the loss of NBC will basically mean a change in prime time shows, Owen says. Those shows include "ER," which guided viewers to KRON's late newscast.
"The lucky thing is KRON has always done more local programming than others in the market," Owen says. "This market has, in its history, the incredible success of an independent, and we have faith that if you build it, they will come. People watch our news product."
Young Broadcasting has announced that Paul "Dino" Dinovitz, president and general manager of two Sacramento TV stations, will become KRON's vice president and general manager on January 1. Dinovitz didn't want to comment on changes at KRON until he joined the station next year, but noted there are "significant opportunities available to us." He added that other stations have set a fine precedent for KRON, losing their affiliations and becoming successful "because they are quality stations [offering] quality programming."
Those precedents were set at WSVN in Miami and KTVK in Phoenix. Within the past 10 years, those stations have given up their network ties and have done well. (The Miami station is now affiliated with Fox.) They did it by developing their own local programming, increasing news coverage and competing, says Don Fitzpatrick, owner and president of Don Fitzpatrick and Associates, a Bay Area television consulting firm.
KRON, he adds, must do the same. "KRON is a very good station, probably the best news station in San Francisco, and if they're going to stay competitive, they've got to actually increase news" programming.
Fitzpatrick says that if losing the NBC affiliation was KRON's destiny, it happened at the right time. "There are peaks and valleys for network operations and right now, NBC is heading into a valley," Fitzpatrick says. " ĆER' is a great show, but it's getting a little long in the tooth these days."
Meanwhile, KNTV is busily entrenching itself: It has expanded its news staff from 70 reporters to 115, increased its daily news programming from three-and-a-half hours to eight, added news bureaus in East Bay and on the Peninsula south of San Francisco, and hired a well-known local anchor to share duties during its early evening and late-night newscasts. It is also breaking ground on a $30 million, 70,000-square-foot building on its lot in San Jose, a 40,000-square-foot expansion from its current space.
To distinguish itself in the local news market, KNTV is increasing its emphasis on technology reporting, a hot topic in the region. KNTV has beefed up its tech staff from three to seven reporters and now offers a technology morning show, tech segments on each of its newscasts and a weekly tech wrap-up show.
"This is something the other stations really don't have," says Eric Hulnick, KNTV's vice president of news and operations. The other stations stand out in areas like health reporting or on-the-spot coverage, he says. "I was afraid if we tried to attack one of those areas first, the best I could hope for was to be as strong. But we have the advantage in tech already, and that seems the best place to expand."
He continues: "It's just a matter of getting people to sample us. Hopefully, they'll see us doing things that their other station isn't doing or isn't doing as well."
Getting viewers to change the channel isn't as easy as it sounds. Habit, TV consultants say, is what keeps viewers tuned to one station instead of another. KNTV is virtually unknown in parts of its future coverage area, and the station still needs to expand to cable systems and intensify its transmitter so its signal can be clearly seen throughout the area.
"For over 40 years, there's been channels 2, 4, 5 and 7, and now you're asking 6 million people to start thinking about Channel 11," Fitzpatrick says. "Habit's hard to overcome immediately."