Channel 36?

KNVN and KHSL, once bitter rivals, are now cohabitating—but it’s hardly a marriage made in heaven

TWO-PART HARMONY: KNVN’s Evan Michael and KHSL’s Crista Evans, the respective stations’ night-time anchors, regularly read slightly different takes of the same stories accompanied by shared videotaped footage. Any idea of competition between the former rivals is gone, as the two stations have merged both their business and editorial functions.

TWO-PART HARMONY: KNVN’s Evan Michael and KHSL’s Crista Evans, the respective stations’ night-time anchors, regularly read slightly different takes of the same stories accompanied by shared videotaped footage. Any idea of competition between the former rivals is gone, as the two stations have merged both their business and editorial functions.

photos by Carey Wilson

Be rated: In the TV news world, all stations are rated according to their market share-- the number of people who watch the station and the area’s population. New York’s market is the top rated, at 250. KNVN and KHSL are rated about halfway down, at about 130.

It’s been a rocky road, recently, for television news stations KNVN and KHSL—and if even half of the rumors are true, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any smoother in the coming months.

The stations, which once competed bitterly for camera angles at crowded press conferences, exclusive news stories and valuable ad revenue, are now working elbow-to-elbow—literally. Their news staffs attend the same news planning meetings, their sales representatives sell commercial airtime for both stations, and the competing news broadcasts often share video. More often than not, a single reporter covers news events for both stations.

In fact, the stations now share a newsroom, management staff and studio. The studio sets are so close, it is said, that anchors delivering the news on one side can hear the newscasters on the other side.

Think about it: It would be like a CN&R reporter attending news meetings and writing for the Chico Enterprise-Record—simply unimaginable. Reporters use the incentive of competition to get better stories and more investigative pieces. Generally, the prevailing wisdom among journalism scholars is that healthy competition makes for a better, more responsible news product.

But for the editors, managers and especially the owners of KNVN-KHSL, the merger was just good business.

The way longtime news anchor Debbie Cobb sees it, this story is a non-issue. When contacted for an interview, she laughed and wondered aloud if her viewers—or anyone outside of the news business—really care about the merging of KNVN and KHSL.

“Does anyone really even know the difference?” she asked. “I mean, if the viewers didn’t know we’re in the same building, they wouldn’t have any idea that we work together.”

And that, Cobb said, is by design. She points out that through the merger the stations have kept their signature anchors and news teams.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there haven’t been obvious staffing shifts. Sportscaster Royal Courtain was fired last month after 22 years with KHSL, for reasons that remain nebulous, and there are rumors that Catamount Broadcasting Group (which owns KHSL and is in a joint-services agreement with KNVN owner Evans Broadcasting) plans to institute a simulcast for both stations’ weather and sports broadcast—which means that it would need only one weathercaster and sportscaster for both stations.

In addition, longtime KHSL weathercaster Anthony Watts gave his resignation in August then decided to remain with the station on a limited basis—leaving a vacancy in that station’s high-profile weather broadcast.

Cobb, who is managing editor for both stations, acknowledged that the station brass are considering a simulcast—for the morning news show, as well—but she shrugged off criticism that that would cripple both stations’ ability to compete for the news.

“Look at what you see on the network news shows; it’s all the same thing,” she said. “It’s like that here. … If we sent two cameras to a meeting, they’re going to come back with the same video, anyway, so the efficient way to cover it is to send one camera for both stations.”

She added that the stations have separate staffs that write the copy the anchors read, and that twist gives each station its distinctive style.

“The bottom line is, we’re all one team now,” Cobb said. “We all work together. … It has been a real challenge, this is something new for us, but we’re all getting along very well.”

When Catamount bought KNVN in fall 1998, the station was a fiscal nightmare. Debt-heavy and unprofitable for years, the station was on its way to certain closure, Catamount President and CEO Raymond Johns said. In the beginning, Johns reassured his jittery new employees that they had no reason to worry, that he planned to keep the station intact and move on with “business as usual.”

But that wasn’t to be. Within months, said a former employee who was familiar with the merger, Johns had plans to operate KNVN and KHSL under a Joint Operating Services Agreement and was “slashing the staffs right and left.”

“He initially said that nothing was going to change, but that was all lies,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “He started crunching the numbers, and that was it for both stations. … KNVN came up [in quality], and KHSL went down.”

Johns, from his Norwalk, Conn., office said that in the end folding the floundering, debt-heavy KNVN into the slightly more profitable KHSL was the only way to keep both stations open.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if we hadn’t have done the merger, KNVN would have gone dark by now,” Johns said. “It was that bad.”

Now that the merger is complete and both stations are operating out of the same office, he said, they are becoming increasingly profitable—albeit slightly. He lamented that the advertising air time on both stations has been undervalued for years and said that’s the main reason why the stations have been fiscal black holes for so long. Thirty-second ads on the stations, he said, sell for as little as $20 (on the morning news shows) and as much as $140 (during prime time), he said.

“No one is making a lot of money on this,” he said. “Anywhere else, that time would sell for at least $175.”

Like Cobb, he downplayed criticism that the stations are too close to maintain journalistic integrity and said that there are only so many stories that the broadcast news covers. In the end, he said, they’re all the same.

“I mean, how many shots have you seen of [Osama] bin Laden ducking into that cave? How many shots can you see of Barry Bonds hitting the 70th home run?” he asked rhetorically.

Even so, there are critics to this new, business-focused method of newsgathering. One, who worked in the Chico TV news business for more than 10 years and asked not to be identified, lamented that he can’t watch local TV news anymore, since “it’s just crap now.”

“Broadcast journalism is like politics now,” he said. “It’s broken and it’s beyond repair. All anyone in it cares about now is making money.

“Broadcast news stations are hot commodities now,” he said. “It’s bankers who buy them like boats and brooms. As soon as they can make a profit, they sell them and make a million dollars, no matter the effect on the community. It’s a crime.”

John Michael, a reporter for the Enterprise-Record who worked for 18 months as a reporter for KHSL before the merger and for Redding’s KRCR-TV before that, was more measured in his criticism of the stations. He remembered a “friendly but strong” competition between KNVN and KHSL and wondered how the news staffs could keep that while working in the same newsroom.

“You have to wonder how they decide who gets what story,” he said. “It must be confusing for them. … I guess I’m wary of [the stations’ sharing video], since they could get into a situation where they’re broadcasting something they didn’t cover. I’m not sure that’s right.”

Finally, a personal perspective: To suggest that competition is irrelevant is an admission of journalistic bankruptcy. What it says is that the time when a station was proud of having a "scoop" or an "exclusive" are over, and that the only news is what’s delivered on a plate. Thus the watchdog becomes the lap dog. Viewer beware.