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Madison hones KNBC’s focus

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When Paula Madison became general manager of KNBC-TV, Los Angeles, six months ago, she made history not only for becoming the first African American female GM in a top five market but also for ending the station’s practice of airing live car chases.
This is Los Angeles, after all, where every station in the market will jettison its news, weather and sports lineup in favor of showing a live car chase while the newscast’s anchors speculate on who is driving and where the car may be headed.
“As a routine I don’t believe we should suspend all of our issues coverage to show that,” Ms. Madison said. “There are specials to show that [such as `World’s Scariest Police Chases’]. I think they need to be presented in a proper venue.”
Since Ms. Madison’s arrival, KNBC has aired only one car chase, near the start of her tenure. Ms. Madison said she objects to the chases because viewers have no choice. Instead of being able to catch up on the day’s news, viewers are forced to watch police chase a suspect through traffic for 45 minutes, almost always ending with the driver getting out of the car and getting arrested.
Ms. Madison compared it to a two-alarm fire. A station would cover a fire the same way regardless of whether it occurred at 2 p.m. during network programming or at 4 p.m. during a newscast. But L.A. newsrooms put a priority on a car chase when it occurs during a newscast, and that’s a philosophy Ms. Madison doesn’t understand.
“[We’ll cover a car chase] provided it’s an event that is truly newsworthy. The only thing is it’s a live picture,” she said. “In many instances, no one is injured and there are no fatalities.”
Ms. Madison has also gone against the grain by no longer ending newscasts with warm and fuzzy animal pieces, such as the water-skiing squirrel stories that are prevalent in the market, and by not sending reporters to Las Vegas to do fluff pieces to spike ratings. Issues such as unemployment, homelessness, senior citizens and education are more worthy of significant airtime, she said.
“Philosophically, we who create television and television news are in the position of telling people what is and isn’t news,” Ms. Madison said. “So if we regularly interrupt scheduled programming, we train the audience to believe that is news.”
Ms. Madison came to KNBC from WNBC-TV, New York, where she was news director. She helped take the station to No. 1 in all its newscasts.
In her first quarter in her first general manager job, KNBC was No. 1 in the market, generating more sales revenue than any other station. It was the first time in 10 years that the station that carried the Super Bowl, KCBS-TV, did not come in first. KNBC was first in sales revenue for the months of January and February.
Visually, viewers have noticed a slight difference, with a new wooden anchor desk, while the old backdrop has been tweaked to give the set a more updated and warmer feel. Ms. Madison changed the anchor lineups so that, as in many other markets, anchor teams work more than just one newscast.
But Ms. Madison’s biggest effect has been behind the scenes.
KNBC had mainly general assignment reporters, but with Ms. Madison’s news philosophy centered on in-depth community reporting, most have been assigned to beats. New business cards for reporters contain key information about how to contact the station and its two bureaus.
KNBC’s internal news meetings are now more focused, with more planning on future projects. Ms. Madison hired Rebecca Nieto to the newly created position of senior news producer for community coverage.
In the morning and afternoon newscasts, anchors now conduct newsmaker interviews that are heavy on local issues. “It’s not sound-bite news,” Ms. Madison said. “It’s four to six minutes and sometimes up to 10 minutes.”
All of Los Angeles’ mayoral candidates took turns as newsmakers. The concept began with the electricity crisis in November, when state lawmakers who were members of the energy committee were regular newsmakers.
KNBC has begun to make its mark in individual communities. In January, Ms. Madison launched “NBC 4 Listens,” which is reminiscent of the Hillary Clinton listening tour in New York.
Once every six weeks, a dozen KNBC news staffers join Ms. Madison to visit a community for a mini-town meeting. Although a KNBC reporter and camera operator cover it, the main purpose is to get to know the community and acquire sources and story ideas. About 50 community leaders are invited. So far they’ve visited Watts, Norwalk and the City of Industry.
“We tell them we’re not here to uncover bad things about your community. Instead, what are things in your community that you think are successful and we could share with other communities?” Ms. Madison said.
Because of the meeting in Norwalk, KNBC helped facilitate dialogue among the city’s leaders in applying for grants for more youth programs.
“We’ve gotten some great stories,” Ms. Madison said. “One of the things we learned from this is Watts Towers is going to reopen in the next few months.”
A few weeks ago KNBC installed a camera in a church near the towers. Viewers will be able to see the video in time-lapsed photography in September, when KNBC will air a half-hour special on the Watts Towers renovation. Some of the video will also be on KNBC’s Web site.