Out of the Box and into Oblivion
The ad campaign that introduced KIRO-TV's $3 million news overhaul was ingenious. For weeks, Seattle area viewers were teased in newspapers, on billboards and over the airwaves with the promise of something radically different. Although story selection and content would not change, executives said the station's news would be presented in a more relaxed, neighborly way. They called it "news out of the box."
As part of the overhaul, KIRO freed its desk-bound anchors and allowed them to wander around the newsroom as they spoke to the camera. Well-known film and television designer Robert Bovill created a new set, and the Seattle Symphony recorded a swirling theme.
The idea was innovative, groundbreaking, exciting – and a complete disaster. The anchors looked anxious as they wandered around the newsroom, despite coaching from a ballet teacher. To make matters worse, the newscast was initially shot at extremely wide angles (making the anchors look minuscule), the symphony's theme sounded more show biz than substantive, and Bovill's backdrop looked silly. Painted gray and teal, it included a revolving stage with three sections for studio interviews divided by walls cut to resemble Mt. Rainier. The assignment desk was fashioned to resemble a ferry boat.
ýritics of the new format were savage; the call to "crawl back into the box" became a local joke. And viewers turned off in droves. Although the station's re- vamped newscast (dubbed "The KIRO News Network" because it combined KIRO's radio and television news staffs) premiered in February as the most-watched 5 p.m. newscast, by 11 p.m. that evening it had plummeted back to third. Soon after, it was third at 5 p.m. as well.
Despite on-air pleas by then-Vice President of News Operations Andy Ludlum, viewers continued to shun KIRO. The anchors walked less and everyone was shot much more tightly. But it was too late. After anchor Susan Hutchison announced she would not be renewing her contract after 12 years at the station, KIRO's board of directors ordered changes. Within weeks, Ludlum and Executive Producer Carrie Krueger left the station, News Director Gail Neubert was fired and a new set was being built.
"Everybody had the same doubts that it was not good television, but [CEO] Ken Hatch is not a television news person and he just said, 'To hell with it,' " says one insider. "Then Andy was gone, Gail was gone, everyone was gone, because obviously it was their fault." Responds station spokesman Nick Latham, speaking for Hatch, "I don't think there were any fall people. They all shared in the vision."
KIRO's latest news director, Bill Lord, got a round of applause when he told KIRO staffers his first move would be to "nail the anchors' shoes to the floor." The station now uses a more low-key slogan: "More news, more often."
Anchor Gary Justice, who has been with the station for 21 years, says he thinks KIRO has learned its lesson. "The key to our success long term is to do news better," he says, "whether you do it standing on your head or strapped to a chair."
Reid is a reporter for the Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington. ###