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The Hare, The Tortoise

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.

In the past year, the gap between channels 8 and 5 has hovered around 2 ratings points, with WFAA holding the slight edge. Each ratings point equals 18,480 households, and a hot story during sweeps weeks can tip the numbers wildly. On the second night of Griffin's Irvin series, for instance, Channel 5 scored a whopping 26.2 rating, leaving WFAA in the dust with a 14.3 rating.

Losing ground to Channel 5 particularly irks the staid crew at Channel 8, who turn up their noses at their rival's tabloid television style.

"It's hard not to watch that stuff," Miller says about his rival's salacious reporting. "But what's the feeling about the institution that brought it to you?"

But Miller's disdain rolls off the back of his counterpart at Channel 5, news director Dave Overton. "We have scared the hell out of them," Overton says. "Every time they get beat, they stand up and whine."

Overton points out that Channel 8's response to Griffin's Irvin stories was not especially noble. Instead of attempting to match the report, Channel 8 bored in on Griffin's anonymous informant, trying to undercut the credibility of Griffin's reporting.

"I have never seen anything as reprehensible as what they did. Instead of dealing with the story, they sent that little Shipp boy to attack us," Overton bellows. "They can't deal with the fact that they just got beat. We're first. They know it and they just can't stand it."

Hyperbole aside, Overton's and Miller's rhetorical skirmishes underscore how the competition has escalated between KXAS and WFAA. Even a casual viewer can tell the two stations have dramatically different personalities. WFAA is the flagship station of the conservative A.H. Belo Corporation, which also owns The Dallas Morning News and 14 other television stations, controlling 12.8 percent of the U.S. broadcast market. KXAS, meanwhile, is a lean operation, owned by LIN Television, which has nine stations with nearly 7 percent of the U.S. broadcast market.

Riggs' award-winning Peavy tape and Griffin's report on Irvin are now old news, just more tapes gathering dust back in the archives. Irvin ultimately pleaded no contest to a drug charge, was suspended for four games by the NFL, and has returned to help the flagging Cowboys. Peavy was acquitted of bribery charges just last month, and is now pursuing lawsuits against WFAA and the Dallas Observer. (Peavy is suing the Observer for printing a verbatim transcript of a secretly recorded telephone conversation in which the former school board member uttered racial slurs. The Observer obtained the transcript through an open records request to the Dallas Independent School District.)

But the ratings war rages on, renewed this past month as November sweeps weeks again saw WFAA and KXAS slug it out at 10 p.m. This time around, there were no stories with the wallop of the Peavy or Irvin tales.

Viewers were besieged with a seemingly endless stream of "special reports" and "exclusives" on the two stations. Reporters unearthed dirty hotel mattresses, unclean restaurants, unsafe parking lots, and various other nefarious doings, in reports stamped with the trademark catchy titles and flashy logos.

And once again Riggs and Griffin--who perfectly capture the difference between their respective stations--were in the middle of the fray.

"They are very conservative," Marty Griffin says of his competitors at Channel 8. "I wouldn't be a success over there."

Such understatement is something regular viewers of Channel 5 might not recognize coming from the 37-year-old, husky-voiced reporter.

With his dark, precise hair and raccoon eyes, Griffin has what can best be described as a cocky presence on-screen. It's not a style that would play well at WFAA, which prefers steady plodders like Robert Riggs and Byron Harris.

Griffin's hand gestures alone would make him stand out at WFAA, or any television station. When delivering introductions to his special reports, Griffin often raps the studio desk. He'll urge viewers to "believe me, folks" as he launches into the meat of his latest reporting effort.

A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Ohio State University, Griffin entered the broadcast industry fresh out of college. His first job 11 years ago was reading the weather report at KDFX, an NBC affiliate in Wichita Falls, Texas. It paid $9,500 a year. "It's good you're not a meteorologist," Griffin says he was told by the news director when interviewing for the job. "I don't like meteorologists to do weather."

 

That inauspicious beginning was followed by one-year stints at the NBC affiliates in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In 1988, Griffin made it to a top-10 market, joining KXAS-Channel 5 in Dallas.

Since arriving, Griffin has studiously developed the style that makes him one of the most recognized--if not respected--reporters in Dallas. Griffin stories carry several trademarks--raised eyebrows, ominous declarations, a hidden camera, and at least one fact to tie it all together.

His tenure at Channel 5 has rarely been without excitement. In March 1992, Griffin distinguished himself by having it out with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Price was charged with felony criminal mischief after he allegedly attempted to attack Griffin and a camera man. The charge against Price was later dismissed.

But Griffin's highest moment of television news theater came in 1993 when he confronted a tough-talking roofer who was allegedly ripping off elderly homeowners. In the series, titled "Rooftop Ransom," Channel 5 repeatedly showed footage of Griffin and the roofer in verbal warfare, their faces literally inches apart, Griffin's nostrils visibly flared. "You better get out of my face," the roofer, smoking a cigarette, warned Griffin. "Are you threatening me?" Griffin responded.

In person, Griffin exudes the same confidence and energy viewers see on-screen. But he is surprisingly laid-back. "It's not rocket science," he says of his job. "If it was, I couldn't do it."

On a windy afternoon in early November, wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, Griffin has come to the Fort-Worth-based KXAS bureau in Dallas, on a grimy stretch of Harry Hines Boulevard. From his cubicle, Griffin sets up interviews. It is November sweeps weeks, and Channel 5's star won't be taking a breather until the ratings period is over.

During the all-important four weeks, Griffin is nothing if not prolific. He airs "exposes" on such a variety of wildly provocative subjects that even a veteran headline writer for a supermarket tabloid would have been challenged.

By the time sweeps ended on Wednesday, November 26, Griffin had reported on an alarming increase in mistakes by pharmacists (up 40 percent in the last four years, he reports); the racist comments of a used-car salesman ("The guy goes absolutely ballistic," Griffin bragged); the possibility of Gulf War-type chemical warfare being tested on Texas inmates, jail guards, and their families (a story that had been floating around for weeks on the Internet); and a cop impersonator harassing and stealing from adult-bookstore customers ("It wasn't what we thought," Griffin explained after he first checked out a tip about possible police corruption).

Griffin was also scheduled to go out with undercover cops to buy heroin--for a story about the drug's increased use among white males--but he abandoned that lead when KDFW stole his thunder with a similar report.

On the Saturday afternoon in his office, Griffin seems in high spirits. The A.C. Nielsen overnight reports had shown KXAS with high ratings the night his story about the belligerent used-car salesman aired. "They were real happy," Griffin says about his bosses.

For the used-car salesman report and three others Griffin aired during November sweeps, the KXAS reporter relied, as he often does, on videotape shot with a hidden camera.

Griffin is unapologetic about employing the controversial technique of secretly photographing story subjects. "A minute of hidden camera work has more impact than 60 minutes of investigative reporting," Griffin says. "As much shit as I took for the Michael Irvin story, it changed my career."

Griffin walks over to a vertical metal cabinet in the KXAS bureau and opens it. Inside, three shelves are lined with purses, knapsacks, and vests. Each contains a fist-sized hidden camera, its tiny lens peering out of a pinhole in some discreet location.

For the video Griffin aired with his story about negligent pharmacists, he had a producer wear the white vinyl purse with the camera inside. For nighttime shots, like the Irvin story, Griffin employs a special camera that shoots in low light.

Channel 5 news director Dave Overton is also a fan of the hidden devices. During the November sweeps, Channel 5 used a hidden-camera report at least once a week. Sabrina Smith, another reporter and member of the Public Defender team, gave one to the client of a mortgage banker, who went in and taped the man instructing his client to falsify financial documents to qualify for a home loan.

Overton says his station is careful, but he believes viewers like to see the evil deeds as they actually occur. Hidden cameras, he concedes, are still a relatively new toy, and dangers, particularly privacy issues, abound. "Local stations have only been able to afford them for two years," Overton says. "We are still feeling our way." KXAS--like rival WFAA--requires reporters to check with the news director and station lawyers before using a hidden camera.

 

The station's lawyers are particularly nervous, Griffin concedes, when the cameras are given to a source, rather than a station employee, as was done in the Irvin story. "You can lose control," Griffin says.

A station can also lose credibility. Among highbrow journalists, the use of hidden cameras is still looked on with disdain, considered a cheap gimmick that is supplanting old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts reporting.

"We do it very rarely. It is not our style," Channel 8 news director John Miller says during an interview in mid-November, when the fall sweeps battle is only half-over. "The issues we cover we hope are much bigger than would be revealed because someone sticks a camera somewhere. We've done it in the past, but we won't do it without a lot of thought."

But in television news, the moral high ground is a slippery spot, and Channel 8 is not immune from questions about its own zeal to bag big stories.

"My dapper bandit has just ruined my day," says Robert Riggs, a tall, bespectacled man who is scrunched into his small cubicle at WFAA's headquarters in downtown Dallas.

It is a week before the air date of Riggs' two-part series on a new breed of bank robbers. He has labored on this story for the past two months, and it is not coming together easily.

He started with the notion of reporting on an emerging national trend of youth gangs turning to bank robbery. The brazen robberies have been happening by the hundreds in Los Angeles, and Riggs figured the trend might be sweeping across the nation.

But he has run into tremendous hurdles trying to nail down a local angle on the story, some way to make it relevant to Dallas viewers. No Dallas bank robbers, it seems, want to tell their stories on camera. Riggs needs an on-camera interview with a robber, any robber, to give the series punch, he believes.

The dapper bandit, so dubbed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he was always nicely dressed when robbing area banks, has turned down Riggs' request for an interview.

The WFAA reporter then pinned his hopes on the Tollway robber, subject of an earlier WFAA scoop when the station got videotape of the crook leading a high-speed chase up the North Dallas Tollway. Channel 8 showed viewers the robber surrendering to the cops after calling his wife from a cell phone in the getaway car.

"It's fine," Riggs says. It's a stretch, but "it'll work," he adds, dialing the number of the lawyer for the Tollway robber.

On the other end of the line, the lawyer offers hope, to Riggs' surprise. "You'll see a promo starting this week talking about violent gangs," Riggs tells the lawyer as he sets up a tentative interview for the next week. After he hangs up, Riggs is appropriately cautious. "I thought I had this interview before," he says.

The story isn't even fully in hand, but WFAA's promotional team is already developing a pitch to viewers. The station will hype Riggs' story, as it does many of its stories during sweeps weeks, on the major radio stations during drive time, and on its own airwaves. Jim Glass, who whips up promotions for Channel 8, complains that "Riggs has 10 minutes to tell his story. I have 26 seconds" to sell it to viewers.

With expensive computer equipment to generate graphics, Glass comes up with the tinsel to hang around Riggs' reporting--a logo reading "Crimes of the Times," with a nifty drawing that looks something like a speedometer.

The tease has to be vague, because Riggs hasn't even written his script yet, and may not get his interview with a Dallas bank robber.

Even the staid hands at Channel 8 accept the reality of television news in a hot market--sometimes the sizzle precedes the steak.

For Riggs, though, the sizzle is not the point. It amuses him when he gets calls from confused viewers who want to pitch a story. They ask Riggs if he is "one of those Public Defenders."

Far from it. The Al Gore of Dallas television, Riggs, 47, is not a flashy personality, and scarcely exudes any personality on the air. He dresses conservatively, keeping two navy blue blazers at the ready in his cubicle. Like many of his WFAA colleagues--Brad Watson, Doug Fox, and Byron Harris--Riggs comes across as the even-handed white man. He rarely interjects much of himself into the story other than the compulsory headshot.

 

It was practically high drama when Riggs, covering the Persian Gulf war, actually donned a gas mask and headgear on the air. Riggs has never gone toe-to-toe with a roofer, and he is not one to ambush subjects.

Instead, he trails behind his prey, quietly posing questions, with a slightly bemused but knowing grin on his face. He can hold a microphone for long periods of time, allowing subjects to squirm in uncomfortable silence. His techniques can be effective, and they do not spotlight Riggs.

The style may be subdued, but Riggs is one of the best reporters in town, well-known in journalism circles for the caliber of his work. Riggs has probably won more high-prestige awards than any other broadcast journalist in Texas, including the Peabody he picked up this spring, and the Dupont-Columbia Journalism Award.

A Texas A&M alum who graduated with a degree in architecture in 1972, Riggs didn't start out in broadcasting. (He did have a weeklong stint on radio when he was in high school, broadcasting with a friend what he describes as a 1970s version of Wayne's World.)

The son of a Paris, Texas watch repairman, Riggs pursued politics after graduating from college, going straight to Capitol Hill to work for his hometown congressman, well-known maverick Democrat Wright Patman. The East Texas congressman chaired the now defunct joint Committee on Defense Production, keeping his hand in several investigations, including some linked to Watergate, and one involving contractors who offered improper perks to Department of Defense officials.

The youthful Riggs says he was the equivalent of a water boy during Patman's investigations. But Riggs acquired a taste for investigating. "I realized I had a knack," he says. "I loved the chase and the hunt."

Airing dirty laundry in Washington made Riggs few friends on Capitol Hill, but he did make acquaintances (and outlets for leaks) in the news business, including CBS correspondent Bob Schieffer, he says. In 1977, Riggs was casting about for what to do next when the aging Patman died. At a memorial ceremony in Texarkana, where Patman's body was returned home for a hero's salute at the airport, Riggs got roped in by a local radio reporter who needed help identifying all the Washington dignitaries descending from the planes. For more than an hour, Riggs recalls, he helped with the broadcast. When it was over, the reporter asked Riggs, who has a particularly deep, even voice, if he had ever considered a career in broadcasting.

That was enough to give Riggs ambitions. He returned to Washington, where his friend Schieffer let him use CBS crews on the sly to make resume tapes. Riggs mailed them out to stations across the country. Those first tapes were embarrassing, Riggs says. Years later, when Riggs was reporting from Austin, his wife would haul them out to encourage the aspiring interns WFAA hired from the University of Texas. The interns saw Riggs in his early days, poker-faced and hair aflutter. "If this man can get a job in broadcasting, then anyone can get a job," Riggs recalls his spouse telling the aspiring journalists.

Riggs' big break came when Marty Haag, then the news director at WFAA, agreed to let Riggs do a freelance piece on corruption at the Small Business Administration. Riggs shot the footage in Washington and came down to Dallas, where reporter Doug Fox walked him through the laborious process of writing and editing a script. It was with that tape, Riggs says, that he scored a job in Albany, New York as an investigative reporter for KNYT in the capital city.

In Albany, Riggs put his architectural degree--oddly enough--to good use. In 1980, he won the Dupont award for a 10-part series on corruption and construction safety flaws plaguing facilities being built for the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Job offers followed the prestigious award. Riggs recalls he was about to fly to San Francisco for an interview--one of five employment offers he was entertaining at the time--when he got the call from WFAA. He canceled his flight and made plans to move to Dallas immediately. The decision to work for WFAA was obvious, Riggs says. Channel 8 was one of the few local affiliates in the country that was establishing a reputation for investigative journalism.

At WFAA, Riggs became part of that effort. In 1992, he reported a series of stories on the Texas parole system that won recognition from the American Bar Association, and was credited with paving the way for the conviction of the former chairman of the Texas Parole Board on perjury charges.

 

But Riggs' greatest claim to fame thus far is undoubtedly the Dan Peavy story, the one that earned him the Peabody award this year.

Perhaps fittingly, the story also highlights the new reality of warfare between Channel 8 and Channel 5.

Without question, Riggs broke the story about Peavy's questionable relationship and financial dealings with a private insurance broker who won contracts with the Dallas Independent School District. The Peavy story aired during the November 1995 sweeps, and was a clean kill for Channel 8 in the ratings. But Channel 5 managed to strip some of the polish from Riggs' effort.

Riggs worked on the story for about nine months. About a week before it was to air, however, Peavy wrote a letter to his fellow school board members, hoping to pre-empt some of the allegations Riggs was about to unleash. A KXAS reporter got hold of Peavy's letter, and rushed onto the air with a report allowing Peavy to defend himself against charges which Riggs hadn't even reported yet.

Even worse, KXAS ripped off its rival's promotion for the story. WFAA had been hyping Riggs' upcoming piece with promos featuring a stark black-and-white graphic with the title "Unanswered questions." KXAS quickly generated its own stark black-and-white promo titled "Answered questions."

"This is one of the most unethical things I have seen in my career," says Riggs sourly, as he reviews a videotape he has kept as evidence of KXAS' low-handedness. But lest there be any question whose story it really was, Riggs adds coolly, "the proof is in the Peabody."

But Peavy's acquittal last week on federal bribery charges is adding another chapter to the story--one that is not all that attractive for Riggs.

No longer is the investigative story just a feather in Riggs' cap. He now must contend with what promises to be sticky litigation stemming from the broadcast. Even before the verdict, Peavy had filed suit in federal court against Riggs and WFAA, charging that the reporter and the television station violated his privacy. Now that a jury has cleared Peavy, the former school board trustee's claims against WFAA take on greater significance.

At issue are the now-infamous tape recordings of Peavy's private telephone conversations. The tapes were made by Peavy's neighbor, Charles Harman, who has pleaded guilty to a wiretapping charge and is awaiting sentencing.

In a pre-trial hearing in Peavy's criminal case, Harman testified that Riggs knew about the taping and received copies of the results. Peavy's lawyer suggested that Riggs actually offered Harman guidance on making the tapes, which may have been an invasion of Peavy's privacy.

At the pre-trial hearing, Harman testified that Riggs "told me, 'If you hear something, just turn [the tape recorder] on and leave it on, you never know when something's going to be there.' That's what I did."

Riggs says Harman's characterization is "inaccurate by omission." But the WFAA reporter says he cannot comment further because of the lawsuit Peavy has filed against his station.

Riggs does complain that he is now spending an inordinate amount of time retrieving documents for Channel 8's defense lawyers, time he would rather spend working on stories.

During the recent sweeps weeks, Riggs' rivals at Channel 5 couldn't have minded seeing Channel 8's star distracted.

Marty Griffin is talking to a television set.
He is conducting an interview via satellite with two doctors, a married couple, who formerly practiced at the prestigious M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The two, who have since moved to California, contend that a mysterious illness, possibly linked to U.S. Army testing of chemical weapons, has surfaced among inmates, guards, and their families in the Texas prison system.

"You are making some pretty serious allegations," Griffin says to the television set in front of him.

A technician enters the room and holds up five fingers. Griffin has five minutes before the satellite feed will be terminated. "Can't I get some more time?" Griffin says, cupping his hand over the phone, as the doctor expounds on the mysterious illness.

Griffin gets a few more minutes. But his story, which airs 10 days later, still leaves viewers with more questions than answers. Griffin wanted to spin the tale out for two nights, but his boss cut it down to one segment.

In the piece, Griffin shows a group of women who allegedly suffer from mysterious symptoms, all with connections to the prison system. It seems intriguing.

But a U.S. Army official asked to respond to the allegations takes much of the punch out of the story. The Army would be glad to investigate the allegations, the official states, but the two doctors refuse to hand over their research so others can verify its accuracy.

 

Griffin's experts end up with scant credibility, and the report has to leave viewers wondering if this was a real story--or just more Griffin hype.

Riggs, naturally, scoffs at the report.
Griffin's story has floated around among prison sources for a month, Riggs says, and Riggs and other reporters at WFAA looked into it and found nothing worth reporting.

But the sweeps clock is still ticking and Riggs has got trouble of his own. He still can't line up a local bank robber.

The FBI had arranged for Channel 8 to film the arraignment of a generic robber who was caught before he pulled a heist in North Dallas, but that won't give Riggs the up-close-and-personal he needs to bring his story home.

The day before his story is to air, Riggs abandons hope of scoring an interview with a celebrated local thief. By flying east and driving all day to a prison in remote Austell, Georgia, Riggs can get an interview with a convict who masterminded hundreds of robberies in Los Angeles, distinguishing himself by using children to do the deed.

But when Riggs arrives in Austell, the young man tells Riggs he has changed his mind and doesn't want to grant the interview. Riggs, panicked, appeals to the convict's ego. Dallas was the hometown of Bonnie and Clyde, Riggs tells the prospective interviewee, implying that the convict could join those legendary figures by agreeing to an interview.

It works.
Back in Dallas, Riggs puts together his script for the story, brushing out what he believes is the last grammatical error. Then he waits for the call to meet with news director Miller to hear what the boss thinks.

Riggs knows going in that Miller will complain about the story's length. The script is about a minute too long.

"It's too long," Miller says as he leads Riggs back to his office. "We need some kind of transition to explain why we are in L.A."

Miller wants Riggs to shorten the amount of time that the L.A. robber gets to talk. "You have him yak for a minute and 45 seconds, and it's probably 45 seconds too long," says Miller.

On his desk, Miller has a November calendar showing the prime-time lineups of each of the major networks, and when Channel 8 has a special series planned for the 10 p.m. newscast. Miller tries to make sure his station's stories match up with the network shows preceding the news. The special a reporter has worked up on the scheduling hassles of working moms, for instance, will not follow NYPD Blue.

Such are the small details a news director faces during sweeps weeks. Miller has been known to park an RV in the back lot of Channel 8 during ratings periods, and literally live at work. No Channel 8 reporters are allowed to take vacations during ratings periods.

"Every morning, I look to see whether we won or lost," Miller says. His secretary keeps the Nielsen overnight reports in a bound volume. They are also posted on bulletin boards all around the newsroom.

Given Channel 5's recent rise in the ratings, Miller has to concede that KXAS is shaking up the local market. He credits a number of factors, among them, the powerhouse NBC programming that attracts viewers and holds them into the 10 p.m. newscast. "We are laboring under the disadvantage of a network with a performance that can best be described as sluggish," says Miller of his station's ABC affiliation.

But Miller also acknowledges the promotional efforts of KXAS. Last May, when channels 4 and 11 were changing network affiliations and confusion reigned among viewers, Channel 5 executed a nearly perfect marketing campaign to raise its profile, he says.

Lee Spieckerman, the director of marketing at KXAS at the time, says he saw a unique opportunity during the confusing affiliation switches. "Viewers would be re-evaluating their choices," Spieckerman says. He developed the "First on Five" campaign. It has stuck and distinguished the station. "It's simple, it's easy to understand, there is not a lot of subtlety," says Miller. But Spieckerman says if the KXAS newsroom wasn't scoring scoops, the slogan would backfire.

In contrast, WFAA mishandled the promotional opportunity last May. It introduced a campaign with the slogan "Strength of Tradition" that the station has since abandoned. The current campaign is called "Right Now."

Right now, Robert Riggs is alone in a soundproof room the size of a telephone booth. He is reading his script onto tape for a story which will air the next night.

It is the hard-sought bank robber story, and it will air against Sabrina Smith's hidden camera piece on Channel 5 about allegedly fraudulent mortgage brokers.

 

Riggs' piece doesn't have what Miller derisively refers to as the "gotcha" quality of Channel 5's reports. It's a feature story all the way. At the end of one night's segment, Riggs is left dryly warning anchorman Tracy Rowlett that the disturbing California trend could happen in Texas, even though bank robberies here have actually dropped of late.

After it airs, viewers may wonder why they watched Riggs' piece at all. There is flashy footage of bank robberies, the interview with the convict in Georgia. But Riggs has to stretch awfully far to give Dallas viewers some reason to care about Los Angeles bank robbers, and he doesn't make it over the hurdle.

Measured straight up, Riggs' bank robber story ends up like Griffin's piece on mystery illnesses among prison guards. Both are duds.

At KXAS, of course, more notice is given to Riggs' stumble.
"What was that?" asks Overton sarcastically about Riggs' report. "Investigative journalism?"

The KXAS news director seems to enjoy the fact that his reporters work fast and furiously while WFAA offers more luxuries. "We are a lean, mean fighting machine," he says. "I don't want a huge bureaucracy. Marty [Griffin] knows when enough is enough." If that means Griffin doesn't produce a 10-part series that wins the Peabody award, so be it, Overton contends. "We are not in the business of winning awards," he says.

But the perception that WFAA produces a higher-quality product--not just scoops--does seem to have market value. "WFAA has a higher standard," says Britain Clure, a television buyer at the advertising agency Temerlin McClain. "They can charge more."

Clure and others say, however, that as the ratings gap between channels 8 and 5 continues to narrow, the distinction between the two when it comes to ad rates is becoming less significant. Both stations are clearly in the hunt for the top advertising dollars.

On the last two nights of the November sweeps, Griffin and Riggs both weigh in with what are billed as "exclusives." Both stories deal with crime, the standard fallback for stations chasing viewers.

Riggs has a police source saying that people are getting mugged in the parking lots of movie megatheaters around town. Griffin airs his piece about a police impersonator shaking down patrons at adult book stores. The report, naturally, has hidden camera tape inside a porno store.

By December 2, both stations received the numbers showing how well they did during four weeks of sweeps.

Channel 8 averaged a 17.7 rating, compared to Channel 5's 14.9. WFAA's hold on first place remained intact, and even edged up a bit.

"The audience may be tiring of the tabloid approach," Miller crows. "I'll never be parking that RV in the parking lot again.


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