Most Central Texans don’t know Lewis Hamilton from Alexander Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel from J. Sebastian Bach. Still, the first Formula One race at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Elroy on Sunday was a major news story.
Whether you were a strong proponent of the building of the track or unalterably opposed, there is no denying that this was a big deal for this area on many levels—economic, political, sports, worldwide image, to name a few.
From a TV news perspective, the race called for extensive coverage. A major event like this, especially one that is scheduled and allows for prior planning, can stamp a news operation as a serious player and one aiming for the number one position in the market. Conversely, it can tell you if a news team is not in the game.
And the winner is—(drum roll)—KXAN in a landslide!
Clearly, based on its performance on Sunday, KXAN is in it to win it. Only KXAN gave the event the all-out coverage it deserved, outdistancing YNN, KVUE, and FOX 7. At the other end of the spectrum, KEYE was missing in action.
Here’s how I saw the local coverage as I bounced around the stations and tried not to miss anything, which I’m sure I did:
KXAN Blankets the Race From Every Angle
KXAN began with a solid three-hour newscast from 7 a.m.-10 a.m., using its usual Sunday morning two hour bloc plus an extra hour gained by not joining the Today Show.
The morning effort featured weekday morning anchor Sally Hernandez and traffic reporter Amanda Dugan joining regular weekend morning meteorologist David Yeomans on set.
In a very wise move, weekend morning regular Brian Sanders anchored from the track, introducing a number of tape packages related to the race itself. From his many years as a sportscaster, Sanders brought both knowledge and his usual strong ability to handle live, on-scene reporting. Reporter Angie Beavin was live at 15th and Trinity where race fans boarded shuttle buses for the track, while meteorologist Mark Monstrola was pressed into duty as a feature reporter, live from the scene of downtown’s Fan Fest.
The best KXAN piece was probably Sanders’ feature on the earsplitting decibel level produced by the F1 cars, making earplugs required for race fans. He also passed on the information that security guards stand behind every car in the pits to block prying eyes from seeing proprietary equipment.
After breaking for an hour for NBC’s Meet the Press at 10 a.m., KXAN took a substantial lead over its competing stations by producing an excellent two-hour pre-race show from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. This left KXAN as the only station on the air from the track.
Prime time anchors Robert Hadlock and Leslie Rhode led the coverage expertly from the track along with chief meteorologist Jim Spencer and Formula One expert John Bisignano, all perched on high chairs on a hill overlooking the scene. Sanders continued as the main anchor on race stories.
The program was first rate from beginning to end. It covered every aspect of the race, including a detailed look at the track along with driver profiles and numerous interviews. Chief Investigative Reporter Chris Willis lightened up to take over the Fan Fest live shots while traffic reporter Dugan continued with updates on the road congestion.
The same crew continued with a 30-minute newscast at 5 p.m., adding Sports Director Roger Wallace at the track, regular weekend sports anchor Brent Carney back at the station, reporter Omar Lewis at Fan Fest, reporter Josh Hinkle at the 15th & Trinity shuttle stop and reporter Chris Sadeghi at police headquarters for the viewpoint of the peace officers.
KXAN wrapped up the day with it’s usual news program following the NBC Sunday Night football game at 10:49 p.m. Regular weekenders David Scott and Natalie Stoll resumed their normal spots at the news and weather desks with Sports Director Roger Wallace back from the track. The producer led with a late breaking murder, unfortunately, but then got quickly into an extensive race wrap-up with Wallace, Sanders and the assorted reporters around town from their 5 p.m. newscast positions. Wallace did an excellent wrap up of both the race itself and a fast moving series of key interviews.
Bottom line—KXAN called out its troops, preempted significant chunks of network and other programming and delivered outstanding coverage of this very important news story. The station clearly had been preparing for months, producing massive amounts of special F1 material, a fact confirmed by News Director Chad Cross. He credits Assistant News Director Alicia Dean for “making miracles happen,” and Executive Producer Haley Cihock, who produced the 11 a.m. two-hour special. Roger Wallace and Chief Photographer Todd Bynum actually had been at the site non-stop since Friday morning, camping out in an RV the station put on site. All in all, an ambitious and highly successful effort.
YNN Does Well by Featuring the Racing
Time Warner’s all-news cable channel produced some excellent work on Sunday. YNN may have delivered the best pure coverage of the racing by leaning on its ace-in-the-hole, reporter Jeff Stensland.
Several months ago, YNN News Director Michael Pearson sent Stensland along with Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Chief of Police Art Acevado and a delegation of other city officials as they visited the Formula One race in Silverstone, England to pick up tips for staging the Austin race.
Stensland, himself an F1 race fan, reported live from Circuit of the Americas throughout Sunday in both the regular news cycles and on the channel’s 10 p.m. special, “Your Sports Now: Grand Prix,” anchored ably by weekend sports anchor Mike Berman. Stensland was able to compare the experience at both the England and Austin races, opining that the traffic was actually worse at Silverstone.
It’s harder to compare YNN’s total coverage since individual pieces appeared at various points in the news cycle as well as in the 10 p.m. sports special. YNN reporters, however, delivered numerous solid features, including Chris Savolski with interviews of happy fans, John Salazar on the chopper traffic, Russell Wilde on slow sales for Elroy business owners and Jess Mitchell with those who biked to the track. In a piece unique to YNN, photojournalist Drew Moses convinced the management at The Tavern sports bar to suddenly turn all the televisions away from football and onto the race, causing pandemonium among the customers. Very funny bit.
Berman also did a pre-race special at 10 a.m. while ace traffic reporter Joe Taylor came in for both the pre-race and post-race view of the backed up cars and the best routes to take.
Bottom line—While not throwing the large cast of staffers at the story that KXAN did, YNN performed very well. Stensland was outstanding and I hope he gets his wish for the boss to send him to more out-of-town F1 races.
KVUE Starts Strong, Ends Strong, but Disappears in the Middle
KVUE began Sunday morning neck and neck with KXAN by producing an equally strong newscast from 7 a.m.-9 a.m. KVUE also featured its regular weekday morning crew, co-anchors Bryan Mays and Yvonne Nava, meteorologist Albert Ramon and traffic reporter Rob Henderson.
Using a chopper supplied by it sister station, WFAA,Dallas, KVUE added a bird’s-eye view of traffic, sending reporter Andy Pierrotti up to report. At the track, KVUE elected to take a lighter approach with its regular weekend morning team of anchor Ashley Gaudeau and meteorologist Ilona McCauley.
The strongest piece in the show was probably meteorologist Andrew Chung’s excellent feature on the science behind the cars, with explanations from engineers at the University of Texas and National Instruments.
Then, while KXAN stayed on and kept producing excellent coverage, KVUE disappeared. At 9 a.m., they joined ABC’s This Week. Then, inexplicably, the station aired a one-hour real estate show, a vacuum cleaner infomercial and then went to a movie at Noon.
KVUE’s news team did not appear again until its late afternoon newscast at 5:30 p.m. With prime time anchor Terri Gruca anchoring from the Circuit of the Americas and regular weekend anchor Jade Mingus reporting from the set, KVUE quickly hit its stride again with very well-produced and reported pieces.
Weekend sports anchor Matt Mitchell covered the race itself from the set, reporter Morgan Chesky reported live on how the traffic situation had gone all day while traffic reporter Rob Henderson offered the very latest, morning anchor Bryan Mays filed a feature from the Travis County Expo Center shuttle stop and anchor/report Jim Bergamo checked in live from the Fan Fest downtown.
At 10 p.m., KVUE repeated its 5:30 p.m. line-up with the addition of reporter Shelton Green’s celebrity interviews, Gaudeau’s feature on those who biked to the track and reporter Heather Kovar’s piece on the helicopter traffic. To its credit, KVUE did not lead with the murder, saving that for Mingus’s anchor segment from the set where she covered other news.
Bottom line—When the KVUE news team was on the air, it delivered its usual high quality product. It deserves high marks for its early morning program featuring its skilled regular morning team. As usual, Terri Gruca combined professionalism and a winning personality as she hosted from the track at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Unfortunately, KVUE made a strategic error in ceding the field to its rival station at 11 a.m. and as a result earns one demerit.
FOX 7 Fails to Show-up All Day but Produces Good Shows at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.
FOX 7’s race day effort was a bit of an enigma. For a station that prides itself on its weekday morning news program which does very well in the ratings, Fox did nothing on Sunday morning, opting for infomercials and the national Fox news. At 11 a.m., it had to join Fox’s NFL coverage, but management certainly could have called in at least some of the morning crew to handle weather, traffic and race-related features before football. Unfortunately, they left that to their competitors at KXAN and KVUE. Since national Fox owns the Speed Channel, which carried the race, it is especially puzzling that the local Fox owned and operated station was not all over the event.
When FOX 7 did take to the air at 5 p.m., it produced a credible product. Regular weekend anchor Jenni Lee held down her usual spot while Sports Director Dave Cody, who first told me how to pronounce Vettel in a conversation we had several weeks ago, was outstanding as he reported live from the track. Reporter Rudy Koski did related features out at COTA, Nancy Zabrano reported on the reaction of neighbors near the track and Noelle Newton drove from the downtown studios to Circuit of the Americas for a report on traffic flow.
The 10 p.m. newscast was similar to the 5 p.m. Unfortunately, in my opinion, FOX 7 led with the late-breaking murder, including a live shot from reporter Daniel Armbruster. It could have waited until later in the show. Once Lee moved to the race after two minutes, the reporting was good. Koski’s interviews with celebrities at the track were interesting, Armbruster reported on the helicopter ferries, while reporter Alex Villereal did two live shots from downtown, one concerning disappointing sales for South Congress businesses and another on Fan Fest. The producer repeated Zambrano’s and Newton’s 5 p.m. packages.
Bottom line—FOX 7 was nonexistent until 5 p.m. It failed to produce a morning newscast and it failed to call in at least one or two of its front line anchors and meteorologist. Those anchors and reporters who did work produced solid and interesting features and Cody was excellent reporting live from the track.
KEYE Invisible on One of Austin’s Biggest News Days
And then there is KEYE, which made itself irrelevant by ignoring the biggest news story in town on Sunday. The station’s management can’t be blamed for having to carry CBS’s NFL coverage beginning with the pregame show at 11 a.m. and followed by two games, which then cancels the late afternoon newscast and pushes back prime time programming so that the late news will be on very late. But this happens to KEYE on every Sunday in the Fall, so it was no surprise.
You would think, if KEYE wanted to be in the local news game, they would at least have scheduled an early morning newscast focusing on the race. They could have brought in the regular morning crew, with special emphasis on meteorologist Allison Miller and traffic reporter Erica Harpold, plus some reporters for the various angles and Sports Director Bob Ballou at the track.
Didn’t happen. KEYE stuck with its usual lineup of preachers and infomercials around the CBS Sunday morning news and Face the Nation. While every other station in town was covering the race, KEYE news did not appear on air until 10:52 p.m. as eyes were glazing over and viewers were heading off to bed.
Prime time co-anchor Judy Maggio came in to anchor, but I don’t know why. The producer led with the murder, then did three recorded pieces related to the race. Regular weekend anchor Katherine Stolp interviewed angry Rainey Street merchants who did not get much business. The piece itself was fine, but in the midst of an overwhelmingly positive event, KEYE’s first Formula One story of the day was negative. Reporter Adam Bennett wrapped up the events at the track with more emphasis on the celebrities than on the race itself, and newcomer Adam Racusin reported from the the police chopper. Then, it was back to other news, like a very old fatal crash, the “fiscal cliff” and the demise of Twinkies.
Surely, KEYE would cover the race on Ballou’s Sunday sports show, which aired at 11:20 p.m? Not a chance. The show was all football, even featuring sports reporter Adam Winkler from the Houston Texans’ game.
Bottom line—If KEYE doesn’t want to fall off the face of the local news map, maybe it’s about time its management stopped “wasting” so much time worrying about government spending and instead began covering Central Texas news, especially major stories like the first ever U.S. Grand Prix race in Austin.