Morning blend

KNVN and KHSL test the waters with new simulcast morning news show

ANCHORS AWAY Before their new gigs anchoring <i>Wake Up!</i>, Amy Finley was a reporter and anchor for KHSL’s evening news broadcasts, and Rob Blair was an anchor for the CBS affiliate in Monterey.

ANCHORS AWAY Before their new gigs anchoring Wake Up!, Amy Finley was a reporter and anchor for KHSL’s evening news broadcasts, and Rob Blair was an anchor for the CBS affiliate in Monterey.

photo by Tom Angel

Sweeping the news: KNVN and KHSL, like all television stations, base their advertising fees on ratings, which are measured several times a year. The next “sweeps” rating period is in February.

It’s 6:30 on a cold Thursday morning, and even dawn is still sleeping, but you’d never guess that from watching the perky hosts of Chico’s new morning news show.

Sitting on a brightly lit sound stage, Amy Finley and Rob Blair sip from matching coffee mugs and banter cheerfully with each other and their guest. This morning, it’s Dr. Craig Callen, a Chico vet who’s here to deliver a warning about keeping pets away from antifreeze in the winter months.

There’s other news, too: a couple of arrests in a home invasion robbery, a minor car accident and announcements about holiday-themed fundraisers. Blair, who delivers the weather segments, plays funny man to Finley’s serious-minded newswoman, and those roles carry over between commercial breaks. Off camera, both are personable and friendly, but Finley seems far quieter and more studious than Blair, who laughs and jokes with the production crew.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more to delivering the television news than reading the TelePrompTer. Finley and Blair use a foot pedal and, on their desk, a small dial just off-camera to run the TelePrompTer screen as they read it. Blair’s arms are a flurry of activity just under the camera’s eye as he delivers the weather portions of the show, signaling to the cameramen when to put up the weather maps, when to run the five-day forecast icons and when to bring the camera back to him.

It’s a lot of work to run the show—especially this week. Wake Up!, which is simulcast on both KNVN and KHSL, debuted only three days earlier, and while the show goes smoothly on the day of our visit, the crew is clearly still working out the kinks.

The show’s set is located in a small corner of the cement-floored studio where KNVN anchors deliver the evening news, and the morning show’s sunburst orange background is really just a large cut-out that’s placed over the evening news’ blue background. The on-camera desk used by Finley and Blair is actually the evening news’ desk wrapped in matching orange butcher paper.

Finley and Blair say they love their jobs. And they would have to—Finley starts work at 3 a.m. (she also writes the news and helps produce the show), and Blair’s day starts at 4. They work until early afternoon getting the next day’s broadcast ready. That means a bedtime of 6 or 7 p.m.

“With other jobs, when you mess up, it’s really only you and your boss and maybe come of your co-workers who know about it,” Finley said. “With this job, you mess up and a whole lot of people get to watch you do it … so we have to be prepared.”

Wake Up! is an experiment for the station’s owners. It’s also a long time coming.

Raymond Johns, president and CEO of Catamount Broadcasting Group, which owns KHSL and operates KNVN under a joint-services operating (JSO) agreement, said that merging the two stations’ morning shows was “just good sense.” The simulcast, he said, is the latest in a series of experiments to make both stations more profitable.

That’s the same logic Johns used two years ago, after he brokered the JSO agreement with KNVN owner Evans Broadcasting and started slowly merging the stations, which were once active rivals. They now operate out of the same offices, share a newsroom and news staff, and are managed by one news director and one managing editor.

“The bottom line is that with two [morning] shows, we had to spread our people thinly,” Johns said. “This way, we have one show [that] we can use all our bells and whistles on and make it really good.”

He said that he’s “pleased” with the first week of the new show but admitted that “it’s nowhere near what it’s going to be.”

“We want to have stronger stories, more comfortable anchors, those types of things will make it even better,” he said. “But I think we’re off to a great start.”

The “old” shows that Wake Up! replaces were indeed less flashy than their replacement. KNVN’s old “24 Today” show featured anchors Stacey McNulty and Brian Schaller simply delivering the news headlines (mainly brief repeats of the previous 11 p.m. broadcast’s headlines) and weather updates. The same went for KHSL’s morning show.

But Wake Up! tries to be more than that. Schaller delivers live spots from around town (last week, he gamely interviewed someone at Cal Java about how to make a latte), and the broadcast is infused with a new energy. Johns said that eventually the show will include more feature-type pieces with interviews and stories that are new to the broadcast, instead of rehashes of the previous evening’s shows.

“We really want this to be a positive thing,” he said. “We’re kind of making it up as we go along. It was never about anything other than making a better product for the viewer. … And making both stations fiscally sound.”

So far, he said, it’s working. Both stations have seen their ratings (and profits) rise in recent months, Johns said, and management is looking forward to the spring ratings release.

While there have been rumors that management has pink-slipped at least a dozen employees because of the simulcast (with only one morning show, why would the stations need two production crews, two directors, two anchor teams?), Johns said that simply hasn’t happened.

He said that “not one” employee has been dismissed because of the simulcast and that those who worked on the separate morning shows now work on other broadcasts.

“We’ve simply redirected some people,” he said. “But there’s been no mass exodus.”

Johns did say, though, that “everything” at both stations “is up for scrutiny.” The competitive and fluid nature of the television news business demands that flexibility, he said.

“We’re looking at everything in the broadcasts to see what we can do better,” he said. “What that means specifically, I don’t know, because we haven’t figured it out yet.”

While Johns said that he would never consider simulcasting the evening news for both stations, he said that it might eventually “zig and zag” personalities and features between the two stations—especially when they are on air at the same time (as they are at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.).

Scott Howard, news director for both KNVN and KHSL, said that he’s “very happy” with the new morning show and predicted that it will only get better. He said that while the simulcast might have been a surprise for viewers (he admits to getting “a few” calls from confused viewers looking for their familiar local morning shows last week), the stations’ staff has known about it and been preparing for it for months.

“It’s all about change," he said. "It’s pretty old news around here. It hasn’t hurt morale at all, since the staff has known what’s coming down the pike."