It's an accepted irony that local news television stations shine only on the darkest days. So it was with KTVT-TV Channel 11 a year ago, about the time it became CBS-owned and Tracy Rowlett-led, when the heretofore news-lite station covered the Texas A&M bonfire collapse. It was the day Channel 11 began to "spread its wings," according to managing editor Rowlett, offering an astounding 18 minutes of coverage. (Channel 8 had 12 minutes; Channels 4 and 5 each had about 6.) It will also be remembered as the end to WFAA-TV Channel 8's quality dominance in Dallas-Fort Worth TV news.
Since then, Channel 11 has steadily made progress in its attempt to give viewers a meaningful newscast. (Yes, Channel 5 has been the one putting the ratings heat on ABC affiliate Channel 8, but the NBC station, for the most part, blows. See its self-promotional reports on Saturday Night Live and Jay Leno for proof.) And Channel 11 has done so the old-fashioned way: It's paid big-time cash for it.
"When there's a big story," says Channel 11 news director Linda Levy, "we'll do what it takes to cover it. We're an extremely serious news organization."
No doubt. Channel 11 recently added a 3 p.m. "election special" newscast to cover the day's Gore-Bush whinings, to "allow the story to breathe," says Levy--but that's cheap. More telling is that the station sent Rowlett to Israel to anchor; that it sent a boatload of people to cover each national political convention; and that it has hired former Channel 8 (read: well-salaried) reporters such as Mary Stewart and Michael Hill and Neal Barton, as well as former Dallas Morning News reporter Jason Sickles. This doesn't take into account Rowlett's reported million-dollar salary. It's the sort of spending spree that eventually freaks out corporate suits. Levy says that's not the case: "CBS has been extremely supportive of everything we're doing."
Sure, so far. But turning around a local television news organization--one that as recently as three years ago was the worst on your remote control--is a huge undertaking, at least a four- to five-year project. And, yeah, the ratings are going up--albeit through some disingenuous tactics--but the real question is, until they get up near Channels 8 and 5 in the ratings, will the network keep pumping cash into the station?
"We had to build a presence in the marketplace," Rowlett says, "which is like raising the Titanic. It doesn't happen overnight. But one of the reasons I came here was that the management in place is committed to doing it, and doing it the right way.
"We're growing in a shrinking universe," he says, "and I think viewers will continue to discover us. Because I think, honestly, right now, we're the best news station in this market. This is not bitterness against Channel 8. These are pure statements of fact."
Not everyone is convinced. "Oh, I guess it's not inconceivable that Channel 11 could continue to get better ratings and, years from now, maybe could fight Channel 8 for No. 1," says one Belo news gatherer who watches her company's battles closely. "But they're still a long, long way away."
The admittedly biased observer acknowledges that Channel 11 is much closer to proving Rowlett's contention of superior quality than was once thought possible. "When I first came over," Rowlett says, "there was a bit of an inferiority complex here, like we weren't good enough to compete with Channel 8. Well, let me tell you, not anymore. It is gone."
Even those who say Rowlett's on-air impact is minimal--and many think it is, rightly pointing out that anchors such as René Syler and Karen Borta and reporters such as Ginger Allen are personable and hot enough to draw cherished younger viewers--agree that having Rowlett behind the scenes has been vital to the station's turnaround efforts. "Tracy has been involved in every aspect of what we're doing," Levy says. "His presence means a lot in terms of credibility, recruiting, mentoring, everything."
He's done so by preaching silly, old-school concepts like reporting, sourcing, patience, depth. He harps on having a commitment to quality, which is like a baseball manager saying he's committed to pitching and defense: Everyone says it, few do it.
"Well, there's commitment, and then there's commitment," Rowlett says. "The stations that try to get a quicker fix usually rely on consultants, and consultants are generally people who couldn't make it in the business and now make their living telling you that viewers want flash and trash. In this market, luckily, quality sells."
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Not right away, though. The ratings for the November sweeps will be out this week, and Channel 11 will be pointing to increased ratings for its 10 p.m. newscasts. But what the station won't tell you is that by calling its Thursday-night broadcast an election "special report" or some such thing, it's not being counted on the nights that Channel 5, thanks to the ER lead-in, whups ass. Take that away, and they're basically tied with Channel 4 for third, still a way back from the leaders.
All of which is, although interesting in a horse-race way, beside the point. The fact is that if you're not watching Channel 11, you're not getting in on the ground floor of a good battle that will be waged this decade. Channel 8 still has a top-notch newscast, but it can't continue to lose its star reporters--Robert Riggs and Alan Berg are the latest to announce that they are leaving--and think it will stay on top just because.
"The best newscast will eventually win out in this market because Dallas has the classic Channel 8 presentation that set a standard of excellence," Rowlett says. "People loved Channel 8 for its quality. But it was No. 3 when I got there too, and a philosophy of quality made it No. 1. Now, that philosophy has changed, which is part of the reason I'm gone."
It's that single-mindedness, stubbornness even, that gives Channel 11 a chance. It's that on Monday, Channel 11 did several minutes on Al Gore's speech, not on "what to say when your kid asks if you and Daddy had sex before marriage," as Channel 5 did. (The obvious answer: "Sure, but don't worry; we rarely have since.") It's because during the closing banter of the Channel 11 newscast, when Rowlett revealed he didn't ice skate, play the piano, or golf, someone yelled out, "What do you do?"--Rowlett looked at the camera, smiled, and said simply, "the news."