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Battle rages over TV turf.

Battle Rages Over TV Turf

KATV Channel 7 Ready to Defend Title In Run For Ratings

One of the hottest contests in the Nov. 6 election didn't include politics at all -- it was a race for the best and most complete political coverage on television. In the Arkansas Gazette's post-election edition, a list of the "Big Winners" included KARK, Channel 4 because the station "caught up with KATV, Channel 7, on election returns."

Channel 7 definitively won the May primaries by providing speedy returns and broader coverage. This was a small but important part of what Channel 7 news director Jim Pitcock calls the intense competition between the stations. Channel 4's news director, Bob Steel, refers to it as a war that predates any other media war in the Little Rock market.

Early in the 1960s, Channel 7 was the weakest station in town. By the time the 70s rolled around, however, Channels 7 and 4 were locked in a battle for first place in the ratings book while Channel 11 remained a distant third.

Winning the ratings battle comes down to money, and Channel 7 has it and spends it. The station is owned by Allbritton Communications in Washington which owns three other ABC affiliates and the roughly $350 million Washington station WJLI. Albritton bought Channel 7 for $42 million in 1983.

United Broadcasting Corp., comprised mostly of local businessmen, purchased Channel 4 in 1984 for $28 million and sold it in 1988 for $64 million to Morris Network. Channel 4 now has less money to spend in the news department because of its large debt service.

Channel 11, by contrast, has relatively little to pay on its debt service -- it was purchased by Arkansas Television for $8 million in 1977 -- but hasn't poured a lot of money into the risky business of battling Channels 4 and 7.

Media observers say Channel 11 could be truly competitive only if the station fired its current staff and then invested millions of dollars including new call letters. Competitors recognize Channel 11's worth, but the station is largely underestimated -- "Thank goodness," says Steel.

Having one less competitor hasn't diminished the energy or money invested in the fight between Channels 4 and 7, and the stations continue to match each other blow by blow.

Squabble Over Coverage

Memories of childhood squabbling, in fact, were brought back when the two stations bickered over who was first on the scene of a recent fire at Little Rock's Union National Bank.

The fight magnified the importance of the stations' new, all-night formats, which feature news. Channel 4 claims it grabbed the idea months ago after reading about all-night news in trade magazines. When Channel 7 found out about the plan, Channel 4 says it was forced to proceed with the programming sooner than planned.

Not true, argues Channel 7. Station manager Dale Nicholson first heard about the idea last January and wanted to implement it in the spring. Pitcock accuses Channel 4 of foul play by misrepresenting taped overnight news breaks as "live" by showing a clock with the current time.

Steel says there are plenty of stations around the country that use the same technique, and it's not meant to mislead anyone. Besides, he says, at least his station has local people reporting local news during the night unlike Channel 7 which uses the national news services of Conus and CNN. And why does it need both, Steel asks -- so Channel 4 can't get the coverage?

The banter goes on. For every punch there is a counterpunch. Channel 7's director of promotions, James Roddey, says:

"If we stay focused on each other instead of on our audience, then we're in big trouble."

It seems to be exactly what the stations are doing. Do viewers really care if one station arrived at an event less than three minutes before another one did? Are the stations getting more technical about the 24-hour news business than viewers want?

Don't underestimate the savvy of the viewers, says Pitcock. He knows his audience is watching closely because he says that's part of the reason his station is number one. An informal poll of viewers suggests that Pitcock may not be correct, particularly since some networks specialize in 24-hour news.

Why Are They Watching?

Viewers aren't looking for just the who, what and where any more on news. If the ratings are any indication, perhaps they never were.

The secret of Channel 7's overall success might be traced back to a formula that once worked for Channel 4. As Steel tells it:

"We don't feel like we were beaten. We feel like we lost first place. It's more what we did wrong, not what they did to beat us."

Channel 4 had assembled an unbeatable news team consisting of 20-year veteran anchor Roy Mitchell, Carolyn Long -- one of the most popular on-air personalities ever to hit the Little Rock market -- weatherman Tom Bonner, and sports announcer Dave Woodman.

However, Mitchell died in 1988 and, shortly after, Long moved to Fort Smith. The station since has tried different combinations, but Steel admits there's no quick fix in TV. He's decided to let the current team of Steve Barnes and Margaret Preston percolate a while.

Steel thinks Channel 7 is secure with what he calls his "goal-post" theory. He says it doesn't matter what anchors sit in between weatherman Ned Perme and sportsman Paul Eells because those two will hold the show together.

Riding The Wheel

"It may be something as simple as the game shows," says Celia Storey, Arkansas Democrat media writer, of Channel 7's stronghold on the number one spot. Jeopardy! is the lead-in to the 5 p.m. news and Wheel-of-Fortune follows the 6 p.m. news.

Channel 4 purchased the syndicated Cosby Show to counteract the Wheel, but the show didn't perform as Steel hoped it would.

Roddey admits the popularity of the game shows is a great asset but points out that Channel 7 rates high in the 10 p.m. spot when it follows some low-rated ABC shows.

"You can literally hear TVs in the marketplace clicking over to watch our newscasts," says Roddey.

The game shows and the strong news team work together to make Channel 7 number one. However, Pitcock says the key to his station's lock is its financial commitment to the news department.

For instance, 80 percent of Roddey's finances for marketing efforts go to news. Strong promotions of on-air talent and special features such as Medical Matters and Crimestoppers also generate viewer interest.

While Channel 4 spends money with both image and news consultants, Channel 7 strictly uses a news consultant to research what viewers want to see. "We don't need an image consultant," says Roddey.

Allbritton Communications allows Channel 7 to have resources that aren't available to Channels 4 and 11. The money for Channel 7's $750,000 satellite up-link truck came from Allbritton rather than out of the station's operating budget.

Channel 4 leases a helicopter that Steel says can arrive at a location, shoot the necessary footage and "feed back" to the station before Channel 7's truck even arrives.

Pitcock, however, sees the helicopter as pure promotion. "For Steel to make that kind of analogy -- it just doesn't make any sense and he knows it," says Pitcock.

The truck enabled Channel 7 to go to Denver for the Final Four and Pitcock says that Channel 4's decision not to go will have long-reaching effects. How important could the consequences be in not covering a game? Serious, says Pitcock. Channel 4's absence, he believes, shows that it was not committed financially, and that's what it's going to take to win this war.

Like Teacher, Like Student?

Steel started out at Channel 7 in the early 1970s and eventually became Pitcock's assistant news director. But maybe Pitcock didn't teach Steel everything. After 13 years of working with Steel, could Pitcock still have some tricks up his sleeve?

"I know him inside and out," says Steel. "He never surprises me, but I surprised him with 24-hour news."

When Steel wins, as with the recent election tallies, he relishes victory over Pitcock, a 27-year veteran news director. But Pitcock usually has a sharp retort:

"We are not your leased helicopter station -- your taped newsbrief station."

Pitcock admits that he didn't like losing to Channel 4 on the recent election coverage. He points out that Channel 4 concentrated only on about a half-dozen major races while his station thoroughly covered the state.

In order to stay competitive, Pitcock knows his station has to invest the money and watch where it goes. He pays attention to what his viewers want and he keeps an eye on the other stations with five TVs in his office.

Steel is more gung-ho to say he's in a war, and he says the election was a significant stepping stone in Channel 4's quest to be number one.

"It's a fight every day," says Steel. "Win the battle every day, and you'll win the war."

Pitcock's style is more subtle, but it's not hard to catch a competitive streak in his comments:

"I invite Steel to come every day with all he's got at high noon."

"But it's not a war," Roddey quickly adds.

Right. And Pitcock and Steel aren't enjoying the fight, either. [Graph Omitted]

PHOTO : NUMBER ONE?: Channel 4's news director, Bob Steel, says the station doesn't feel like a number two station.

PHOTO : ANTI-WAR: There's no TV war, says Channel 7's News Director, Jim Pitcock (left), shown here conferring with anchor Andy Pearson.

PHOTO : STAR PLAYER: Channel 7's news director Jim Pitcock (right) says weatherman Ned Perme is an important part of the station's newscast.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:KARK, Channel 4; KATV Channel 7
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 19, 1990
Words:1618
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