Archive for October, 2011
The annual Fall ratings period for local television stations began Thursday night and will run for four weeks, ending the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. The so-called November “sweeps” are one of the most important periods for station sales departments, ad agencies and media buyers. November numbers set the ad rates for the next few months, including the holiday season.
For news departments eager to impress viewers, this period usually means special reports and increased promotion. The best of these, on the KXAN-TV news at 6 p.m., featured investigative reporter and morning anchor Chris Willis with an expose of the Lockhart Youth Sports League and its president, JJ Perez. In messages to the KXAN News Tipline, parents complained that their money raised through fund raising was missing and that the league president and sole board member was not returning their calls. Willis found the same problem, finally getting a short email from Perez, offering to answer questions if KXAN submitted them in advance. Willis explained firmly that KXAN does not do that, as a matter of policy.
At 10 p.m., perennial ratings king KVUE-TV elected to unleash its new investigative reporter, Keli Rabon, with a four minute report on thousands of missing state owned items worth many millions of taxpayer dollars. Included were computers, treadmills, a robot and the cover to the University of Texas’ baseball diamond. UT was tagged as the worst offender with $4.2 million of missing property. It was a solid premise and a good beginning.
Unfortunately, the later portions of the report quoting a representative of the Secretary of State’s Office, made clear that numerous items were not really missing but could be found in a diligent search. He pointed out that many items were very old and worthless, and an all out search would in fact waste taxpayer dollars. It was even handed reporting by KVUE, but in the end, it was a “on the one hand, but on the other hand” conclusion, not quite living up to the promotion and the teases.
Also at 10 p.m., KEYE-TV featured reporter Lisa Leigh Kelly with an “exclusive” report on the previously-reported hacking of the Secretary of State’s computers being worse than first thought. Apparently, one of the computers was “vulnerable” for six months, endangering the security of many Texas residents. This was acknowledged by the state information officer interviewed for the story. Again, the problem is now hopefully in the past, taking away somewhat from the story’s impact.
The moral appears to be that a television reporter can always find some problems by going after the State Government of Texas. I think that’s called, “low-hanging fruit.” In this political environment, it’s always safe to get the taxpayers riled up.
In other ratings kick-off news, all three stations led with the weather at 10 p.m., featuring a cold front that finally brought a chill to the evening and overnight hours. Both the topic and the TV weathermen delivering the news are very popular in this market, so this was essentially a no-brainer. KVUE went a step further, however, and in my opinion it was a step too far. They shrunk the main screen featuring the anchors and muddied up the surrounding screen area with predicted hourly temperatures for each local city, the seven-day forecast, and even an ad. All this in addition to the ever present crawl at the bottom. Very distracting, a disservice to the viewers and certainly a disservice to news anchors Tyler Sieswerda and Terri Gruca on the first night of a ratings period that is very important to them.
KXAN-TV News Director Michael Fabac clearly believes teamwork is key to the success of his news department. The evidence is abundant:
- When Fabac goes scouting for reporters, he looks especially for those who show some evidence of teamwork with the photographers where they worked.
- Fabac is about to stage his third annual multiple platform peer review day. The staff comes in on a Saturday to be trained by their peers in photojournalism and to evaluate each others’ work.
- Fabac formed an eight-person “innovation team,” which gives feedback on what tools the news team should have and also serves as a go-between to convey problems to Fabac and management.
- He insists that members of his management team, including him, go out on assignments from time to time to get a feel for what the crews need.
- When recruiting new on air talent, he not only shares the tapes with his boss and with the newsroom managers, but also asks several reporters and photographers to help evaluate their future colleagues.
Fabac, 38, claims his management style is to let his people do their own thing, staying hands off except when he needs to be. Still, he attends most of the two-a-day editorial meetings, and he also feels that feedback is very important.
“Whether positive or negative feedback is called for, I try to jump on it right away,” Fabac says.
Like KVUE-TV Executive News Director Frank Volpicella, Fabac believes Austin is a great market in which to work, calling the other stations, “good operators, good competitors.”
Unlike many other markets where key anchor talent determines the news ratings, Fabac views Austin as a content driven market.
“Breaking news is key to winning in this market,” Fabac says. “When I look at anchor tapes, they must show evidence of handling breaking news well. You can be the greatest reader in the world, but if you fall apart on breaking news, you won’t work out here.”
While everyone in the market did a fine job on the Bastrop fires, according to Fabac, he is very proud of his team. He claims KXAN was the only station to cover every one of the continuing news conferences from Bastrop, citing the station’s “public service obligation.”
As the long time second place station in the news ratings behind KVUE, Fabac is not discouraged.
“Of course we want to win,” he says. “I am very competitive, but it takes time. The landscape changes. For example, Oprah is gone from KVUE. Hooray! That’s the fun part.”
Fabac was attracted to Austin as a great place to live, but says other lures included the strength and stability of the photographic staff and parent company LIN Media’s heavy digital focus.
“Our company philosophy, my philosophy, favors multi-platform journalists,” Fabac says. “Our philosophy is to have a good blend of talent to get the news to the public first.”
Everyone carries a smart phone and a laptop, allowing tape editing in the field and forwarding back to the station. Several photographers can write for the web site, while several of the reporters are really good as photojournalists, allowing the assignment desk to stretch the staff.
“We try to let the content drive the situation, not logistics,” Fabac says.
He admits to some pushback from staffers who don’t feel comfortable performing all tasks, but says he has ramped up slowly.
Still, he does believe in specialists, employing a beat system for reporters.
“I think we have the best reporting staff in town, the best system, the best sources,” Fabac says.
Like his prime competitor, Fabac and KXAN have adopted “investigative” stories as a key branding element.
“Investigations are what the viewers want,” Fabac says. “We have determined this in research, plus you can see the audience spike when an investigation is running. If you want to remain relevant, you have to make the investment.”
While competitor KVUE has a new fulltime investigative reporter, KXAN’s key investigator, Nanci Wilson, and the station recently parted company. Fabac features his team of remaining investigators, headed by veteran morning anchors Chris Willis and Sally Hernandez. He also believes a number of other reporters have outstanding sources and considers them part of the investigative team.
Fabac joined KXAN in January 2007. He began his broadcast news career as a high school intern at KKTV in his hometown of Colorado Springs in 1989. He was hired as a producer upon his graduation and spent two and a half years at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs branch while working full time. Before he could graduate, he was hired by KTVI, the Fox affiliate station in St. Louis.
“I want to get that degree, I really do, especially before my niece and nephew get theirs, so I am going to keep working at it,” Fabac laughs.
In 1996, he moved to the highly respected NBC affiliate in Detroit, WDIV-TV, as producer of the morning news show. The Motor City brought two very important women into his life. The morning traffic reporter was Debra Wynn, who became his wife and, eventually, traffic reporter at KXAN-TV. Fabac also worked in Detroit with Alicia Dean, who is now his assistant news director in Austin. (Wynn reports to Dean at KXAN, not to her husband.)
“I produced virtually every show during my four years at WDIV,” Fabac says. “It was a great learning experience.”
Then began a series of hops familiar to most news directors. In April 2001, he launched the new 11 p.m. news on Detroit’s CBS affiliate WWJ/WKBD, then earned his first news director job in Saginaw, Michigan in 2002. A year later, he was hired as news director at Fox affiliate KLRT, Little Rock, where he launched and built the news department from scratch.
In January 2007, KXAN President & General Manager Eric Lassberg hired Fabac to lead the news department.
“Eric comes from a sales background, but he has a healthy respect for news and a curiosity about news,” Fabac says. “It’s a fun relationship.”