The consolidation continues

Local news stations KNVN and KHSL consummate relationship with new late-night weekend simulcast

STATION TO STATION Following a recent trend in local TV programing, Matt Keller anchors the <i>Northern California News</i> simulcast on formerly competing stations KNVN and KHSL.

STATION TO STATION Following a recent trend in local TV programing, Matt Keller anchors the Northern California News simulcast on formerly competing stations KNVN and KHSL.

photo by Tom Angel

What’s the difference? For years KHSL TV, founded in the 1950s, has been viewed locally as providing the more staid and established local news program with its veteran anchors and reporters. KNVN, on the other hand, went on the air in the 1980s and sought a younger, hipper audience by offering a more irreverent approach to the news.

The more things change, the more they become the same. That at least appears to be the case with Chico’s local television news programs.

On Jan. 5, Northern California News, an 11 p.m. simulcast utilizing the resources of both KHSL and KNVN, made its debut on both stations. Introduced and anchored by a seemingly less-than-enthusiastic Matt Keller, who’s normally only on KNVN, the new weekend bi-station news program is the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes planning and cross-country directives from the stations’ respective out-of-state owners in an effort to combine resources, streamline operations and ultimately improve profits.

Speculation from some close to the stations is that the next program to be simulcast will be the 11 p.m. Monday-Friday news show, and then the 5-7 p.m. time block will be staggered—KNVN will go at 5, KHSL at 5:30—with separate anchors but using the same stories, reporters and live-broadcast trucks.

Raymond Johns, president of KHSL owner Catamount Broadcasting Group, confirmed this week that the stations would start staggering their evening news broadcasts “sometime soon.”

“We’d be foolish if we didn’t stagger them,” he said. “In a market the size of Chico, there’s only so much pie to be sliced and still make a profit at the same time.”

Johns denied rumors of layoffs, but they abound anyway. The new program, NCN, features only KNVN talking heads, including Keller, sportscaster Dan Hirsch and weatherman Rick Blood and on Saturday featured KNVN reporter Stacey McNulty. Rumors have persisted for months that KHSL’s longtime relationship with weatherman Anthony Watts may be over, but Johns insisted that Watts has been offered a new, if altered, contract.

“If he leaves the station, it’s because he wants to leave,” Johns said. “We want him around, and we’ve made that clear.”

Initially, Watts said he had yet to hear anything official about a new contract and seemed to be bracing himself for a dismissal. “I have not been officially notified, so anything I say would be premature,” he said.

A day later he said he still had a job, though his duties would change somewhat in the next month. When asked what he thought of the debut of Northern California News, Watts expressed surprise that the new program had aired without his knowledge.

“What?” Watts asked incredulously. “They already ran it?”

He then predicted that Northern California News would eventually “take over the identity of both stations.”

This new weekend simulcast is just the latest in a recent series of high-profile mergers orchestrated by KNVN and KHSL’s management. Both stations are operated by Connecticut-based Catamount Broadcasting Group, which owns KHSL and operates KNVN under a joint-services operating agreement with owner Evans Broadcasting Group.

The stations, which were once highly competitive, now share a newsroom, the same news director and editors, and even staff. Anchors switch-hit for both stations, and only a makeshift wall separates the studios.

Just last month, the stations cut out their separate morning news shows to simulcast one show for both stations. The show is buoyantly called Wake Up!, but there have already been staffing shifts. Former KHSL anchor Amy Finley was co-anchoring with Rob Blair until last week, when Maureen Naylor abruptly replaced her.

Scott Howard, news director for both stations, said that the decision to scrap the separate weekend late news broadcasts was “purely business.” He acknowledged that some of the staff is nervous about all the changes at the station but said this latest simulcast will be the last—for now.

“This will be it,” he said. “The hope is that we won’t have to go that far, to do any more major changes … but you do what you have to do to stay afloat.”

Reluctant to talk about staff changes, he acknowledged that, although there haven’t been any mass layoffs due to the simulcast trend, “there are more people than hours on the production side right now” of both stations. Management is trying to avoid layoffs by spreading out the hours evenly, he said.

Business decisions aside, how does the simulcast affect local television news viewers? That’s become an increasingly difficult issue, given the ever-shrinking pool of local news gatherers. Generally, the more competition, the better, as journalism (at its best) serves as a watchdog of government. The fewer the watchdogs, the less is reported and the less the public knows.

Sighing, Howard seems still to be reckoning with that issue.

“We hear all the time about other stations closing down their news departments entirely," he said. "That’s what we’re trying to avoid. … We want to keep providing some news. This is just survival for us."