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The $62 million question; will new management justify channel 4's huge price tag?

AS INCOMING NEWS director for KARK-TV, Channel 4, Al Sandubrae has the task of lifting the station's newscast out of a five-year ratings slump and back into first place.

That's no small feat, considering that industry sources say Channel 4 is being outspent 2-to-1 on news coverage by its ultra-slick first-place rival, KATV-TV, Channel 7. The pressure is intensified by the fact that KARK's owners are saddled with hefty debt service on their $62 million purchase of the station and will be hard-pressed to wage a spending war.

The 37-year-old Sandubrae, who is not known as a people person, also faces replacing a popular, respected leader in former news director Bob Steel and deciding on a news anchor team that isn't under contract.

"Al is a pretty heavy-handed kind of a manager," says Don Fitzpatrick, a nationwide television headhunter and publisher of a TV newsletter called "Shop Talk." "You love him or you hate him. He has specialized in shaping up stations that have had kind of a laissez faire way of management."

KARK President and General Manager Dean Hinson chuckles at the characterization.

"So far we have not found any evidence that he has eaten his young," he says.

The challenge is daunting, but Channel 4 and Sandubrae have a rare window of opportunity. With the right moves, Channel 4 could claw its way back to the top. The wrong moves, according to one analyst, could very possibly send the station careening into third place, behind the basement-dwelling news team of KTHV-TV, Channel 11.

The stage is set.

At Channel 7, news co-anchor Andy Pearson rejected a new contract in favor of an anchor job in Nashville, Tenn., and was shown the door between a recent set of 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts. Channel 7 will spend the next month or two scanning for a new anchor, and the choice will be critical.

At Channel 4, contracts have expired for two news anchors: Margaret Preston and Steve Barnes. Local sources in the industry say Channel 4 will have to lose at least one of them if they hope to make a move in the ratings.

Firing Preston would be complicated, mostly because she is beloved by the African-American community. When Steel demoted Preston in 1989 from the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news anchor spot to the 5 p.m. job, he received a tongue-lashing from black journalists and others concerned about fairness in employment. Preston was later restored to the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. anchor job.

Personnel Matters

Contacted Wednesday, Preston says she is confident about the station's future, and hopeful but uncertain about her own.

"You know, we don't have complete control over our destiny," she says when asked whether she will get a new contract with the station.

Of Sandubrae, Preston says only that he "seems like a nice guy."

"Steel was the one who hired me," she says, "and any change requires an adjustment."

Barnes is currently co-anchoring the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts while serving as moderator for the Arkansas Educational Television Network's "Arkansas Week," writing a locally syndicated column and taking on several print free-lance jobs.

His newscasting style is solid, not glitzy; his looks are normal, not glamorous. In a ratings-oriented push, these facts might weigh heavily on any contract negotiations.

Along with personnel changes, Channel 4 also can be expected to change its look. The next ratings period is in November, so this fall would be a likely time to spring a new set and new music on the competitors at Channel 7.

Many television viewers have forgotten that Channel 4 was once the dominant force in the Little Rock television market.

The station owned the most popular newscast in the early and mid-'80s, TABULAR DATA OMITTED anchored by the duo of Carolyn Long and Roy Mitchell. Steel spent those days at Channel 7, working as an assistant news editor under Jim Pitcock, the station's longtime news director.

It all began to unravel for Channel 4 in 1988. Early that year, as the station continued to coast in the ratings, the Morris Network Inc. of Georgia purchased the station for the astronomical sum of $62 million.

Then, there was the "market correction." As Long's contract was about to expire in June, she jumped ship to Channel 7 as feature correspondent and prepared to move to Fort Smith.

The fallout was clear. In November 1988, Channel 7 swept the Nielsen ratings for every news program and came out ahead in the Arbitron ratings for every broadcast except the 10 p.m. slot.

During the February and March rating period of 1989, the station received another wound when Mitchell died of a heart attack. From that point, Channel 7 began gathering unstoppable momentum in the ratings.

But the bleeding would not stop. After Mitchell's death, the new anchor team of Ann Porter and Doug Krile fell apart when Porter was involved in a domestic incident with Channel 4 reporter Ray Nelson and his estranged wife. Preston took Porter's place on a temporary basis.

Sandubrae is here to erase the bad memories.

Young Al

He began his journalism career as a television reporter in Fargo, N.D., and later moved on as a special projects producer in Pittsburgh and an executive news director in Wichita, Kan.

In 1984 he moved to Oklahoma City, where he went to work as news director of KWTV-TV, Channel 9, the CBS affiliate, and eventually ended up as station manager.

Here, the story varies. If you ask Hinson, Sandubrae was responsible for pulling the station out of third place in the ratings and taking it to the top. Fitzpatrick concurs with the story.

Sandubrae, however, says the tale has been blown way out of proportion.

"The station was a strong No. 2 bordering on No. 1 when I got there," he says. "They had already made a great deal of progress."

And Fitzpatrick notes that Sandubrae was fired from KWTV at the company Christmas party. When a spokesman for the station was asked about Sandubrae, he said the company does not comment on employees, past or present.

"Yes, I am direct; yes, I'm blunt," Sandubrae says of his reputation. "A lot of people find that refreshing, and some people don't. But I like to have fun."

Sandubrae worked briefly as a consultant for KFOR-TV, the city's NBC affiliate. In July 1992, he became managing editor for news at ABC affiliate KOCO-TV, Channel 5, where he was in charge of an investigative news department known as the "I Team" and a first-alert storm team.

He plans to continue his emphasis on investigative reporting at Channel 4.

"I don't think viewers necessarily want flash and trash, and they don't want to be bored to death either," Sandubrae says.

He is already mulling over possible changes but would not discuss any specific plans with Arkansas Business.

Steel the Scapegoat?

It's not clear what falling-out brought Sandubrae to Little Rock, but industry sources say Steel was fired as a scapegoat for Channel 4's disappointing ratings.

"Mr. Steel resigned," Hinson says. "I can't let you read something in that's not there."

Contacted at home, Steel declined to talk about the reason for his departure. He was busy searching for a job.

"I'm really trying to stay in Arkansas if I can," he says. But the Arkansas native concedes that if he wants to remain a television news director, he probably will have to leave.

In the heat of competition, Pitcock and Steel were ... well, competitive.

"I invite Steel to come every day with all he's got at high noon," Pitcock said in 1990 from his perch at Channel 7.

Now, he has nothing but kind words for his colleague.

"Bob and I have been friends for 20 years, and I think he was a tremendous asset for that television station," Pitcock says. "I know that the last three ratings books had just been devastating to them."

Back in form, Pitcock says Sandubrae will get a rude awakening when he goes after first place in the ratings.

"He better get up early and stay up late," he says.

Everyone seems to agree that if Channel 4 is to reach its potential, it must get better lead-in and lead-out programming around its newscasts.

Channel 7's evening newscasts are surrounded by the best news audience magnets in the country, beginning with "Jeopardy" at 4:30 p.m. and ending with "Wheel of Fortune" at 6:30 p.m.

Channel 4, on the other hand, settles for "Murphy Brown" reruns at 4:30 and "Entertainment Tonight" at 6:30.

It might also help if Channel 4 had its own satellite uplink truck. Channel 7 paid $750,000 for its truck and has subsequently trounced the competition in coverage of events outside central Arkansas such as basketball tournaments and the presidential inauguration.

Media specialists say Channel 4 is profitable but financially burdened by the poor performance of two sister stations in Macon and Valdosta, Ga. Hinson, they say, has been under pressure to increase ratings while the news budget has actually been falling.

All this worrying over news is understandable. The advertising market shared by the Little Rock television stations has been estimated at more than $43 million, with roughly 30 percent of the local ad dollars spent during news shows.

It is the immense debt service expense that keeps Channel 4 from spending more on news, sources say. The $62 million price tag was said to be as much as 17 times the company's annual cash flow at the time of the purchase.

Allbritton Communications in Washington, D.C. bought Channel 7 for only $42 million in 1983, and Channel 11 was purchased for a mere $8 million in 1977.

For additional perspective, consider Memphis television station WMC-TV. In an urban market twice the size of the Little Rock viewing area, WMC was sold two weeks ago for only $65 million, or an estimated seven times its cash flow. That's in spite of the fact that the purchase included two radio stations and substantial real estate holdings.

By any reckoning, Channel 4 is way too expensive to be in second place. And so, the battle is joined.
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Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 9, 1993
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