The Hare, The Tortoise

Channel 5's Marty Griggin and Channel 8's Robert Riggs race for ratings as their stations struggle for dominance of local television news

Robert Riggs and John Miller were in New York to bask. Riggs, a 16-year veteran reporter for WFAA-Channel 8, was about to be invested as a top gun. At a ritzy luncheon, he would accept the George Foster Peabody Award for Investigative Reporting.

For broadcast journalists, there is little to rival such a moment. Like Pulitzer prizes in print journalism, the Peabodys carry immense prestige and cachet, their winners ascending to the profession's elite.

Riggs' claim to the prize was hard to dispute. His painstakingly reported series of stories on Dallas school board member Dan Peavy rocked Dallas, spawning indictments, controversy, and investigations into alleged corruption in the awarding of school district insurance contracts.

In early May, the broadcast industry's stars gathered at the posh Waldorf-Astoria in midtown Manhattan for the Peabody ceremony. Riggs was seated up front, at a table with Oprah Winfrey, Dan Rather, and director Barry Levinson. Miller, WFAA's news director, was at a table nearby. Oprah kidded Riggs about staying awake for the entire four-hour affair, which was emceed by NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

But before Riggs and Miller even finished their meal, Miller's beeper flashed an urgent message, something that happens often when you're in charge of news operations for a station as large as WFAA. When Miller called the office, the word was not good. Back in Dallas, Channel 8 was getting slaughtered.

The night before, Marty Griffin, one of the so-called "Public Defenders" on rival station KXAS-Channel 5, had unloaded a bombshell. In the opening salvo of a now-infamous weeklong series of reports, Griffin aired hidden-camera footage of Dallas Cowboys superstar Michael Irvin driving around in a sports car, purportedly buying cocaine. Coming on the heels of Irvin's arrest--after he was found in a hotel room with drugs, various vibrators, and a pair of "exotic dancers"--the report eclipsed anything else on local television news.

The story was classic Griffin, more hype than heft. A camera concealed in the back seat of a car captured murky nighttime footage of Irvin and a mystery informant--who, it later turned out, had been paid $6,000 by Channel 5. The two men drove around, presumably shopping for drugs. It was the type of reporting that almost certainly will not earn Griffin a trip to the Waldorf-Astoria to accept a Peabody award.

But if Griffin couldn't be in New York, he could still eat Channel 8's lunch.

"What are we doing in response?" Miller wanted to know. Reporter Brett Shipp was already on it, Miller was told, trying to pin down the identity of Griffin's mystery informant.

The moment was not lost on Miller. Here was Riggs winning the big award, a huge gold star handed to Channel 8 for its longstanding adherence to the sober, responsible school of television news.

Yet down in Dallas, viewers were tuning in to see Griffin, that flash-and-trash loudmouth whom Channel 8 wouldn't hire to straighten Troy Dungan's bow tie.

Griffin's story lit up the town. The best WFAA could muster in response was a report identifying Griffin's informer as Dennis Pedini, but even that was old news by the time Channel 8 aired the story. In the meantime, Channel 5 was pounding its rival in the ratings. Almost a half-million viewers tuned in to watch the second night of Griffin's series on Irvin, almost double the number that watched Channel 8's newscast that same night.

Local radio call-in shows were flooded with listeners' opinions about Irvin, Pedini, and Griffin. Private investigators were trailing Pedini's car. The Dallas District Attorney's office began trying to get Pedini, Griffin, and the videotape down to the courthouse as part of its investigation into Irvin's drug activity.

Whatever Channel 8's news team might think of Griffin's tactics, Channel 5 owned the Irvin story from the night of Griffin's first broadcast. Miller's troops never caught up.

Bragging rights weren't the only thing on the line, either. Channel 5's Irvin series started on May 4, 1996, the first night of the spring sweeps weeks, the ratings contest held three times each year, in February, May, and November.

Peabody awards may mean prestige, but ratings mean money. A station's numbers during sweeps periods largely determine how much it can charge for advertising spots in the ensuing months.

In Dallas, a nearly $400 million advertising market, the 10 p.m. newscasts are the most-watched local programming, and the most lucrative time for stations to sell advertising. Big bucks ride on the ratings of the late-night news shows, and during sweeps weeks all of the four major stations crank up their best stuff, dispatching star reporters like Griffin and Riggs to muckrake in a big way.

For almost 10 years, WFAA's newscast stood virtually unchallenged in the ratings game, allowing Channel 8 to reap a premium for ad time during its late-night broadcast. Thirty seconds of air time during the Channel 8 news costs as much as $6,500, a hefty $2,000 more than time on any of the competing stations.

But for the past 18 months, WFAA's ratings stranglehold has eroded considerably. After KDFW-Channel 4 and KTVT-Channel 11 changed network affiliations last year, their news shows faded to relative insignificance in the local market. But Channel 5 has surged, nearly doubling its ratings, and has challenged the mighty WFAA for dominance of local news viewership.

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