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Thursday, Jun 1, 2023

Strong Signal

The new news set at KNBC-TV Channel 4 is designed for a visual world to say the least. There are 27 on-air monitors throughout – all around the main anchor desk, in the weather center that doubles as a secondary reporting area, and in the sports area that includes a new interactive screen. The five 90-inch monitors behind the anchors? They can change images in a moment’s notice, moving from the skyline of Los Angeles to the mountains in Sochi for a report on the Winter Olympics. The set, too, can change its overall lighting scheme, with red reserved for breaking news to show urgency and importance. Welcome to the news set of the future – today. Since relocating to the Universal Studios lot from its longtime home in Burbank early this month, the NBC station has presented what it boasts are the most graphics-heavy newscasts in the country – powered by 308 miles of fiber optic cable. “It enhances everything we are doing and truly gets the viewer involved in what we are doing,” said Steve Carlston, president and general manager of the station. The state-of-the-art news operation at the station owned and operated by NBC is located in what had once had been Technicolor film processing labs. The improvements are the second phase of the investment that NBCUniversal parent Comcast Corp. in Philadelphia is making in local news operations since its acquisition of the network in 2011. In addition to new facilities in Los Angeles, the NBC and Telemundo affiliates in Dallas are getting new studios, as is the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia. The bigger question, though, is whether all these high-tech changes will affect what really matters what it comes to local news and television: ratings. Los Angeles has the toughest local news market in the country, Carlston said. In addition to KABC, his station competes against KCBS Channel 2 and KCAL Channel 9, both owned by CBS Corp., and to a lesser extent KTTV Chanel 11 owned by Fox Broadcasting Co., a division of 21st Century Fox in New York. In the Los Angeles market, NBC4 had been the dominant news station in the late 1990s and early 2000s before falling off. Two years ago, not long after Carlston started, the station in a bid to pump up its rating freshened up its news set and logo, and added new high-tech newsgathering equipment, more news trucks and a $2.5 million Eurocopter A-Star helicopter. Still, though, the top spot is occupied by KABC TV Channel 7, the Walt Disney Co.-owned station in Glendale. What’s more, all local news operations are chasing a shrinking, older audience as younger views migrate more and more to online and mobile news sources. “If you look at the (broadcast) news it is dependent on the lead in; I don’t think people are that loyal to news programs anymore,” said Rick Marks, a former NBC news writer and producer who now teaches in the broadcast journalism program at California State University, Northridge. Halo effect The move by the news department to the Universal lot was specifically designed to be completed by the start of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 7 so the set would get maximum exposure. The first broadcast was on Feb. 2 and the strategy has played out well. The NBC network broadcast of the Sochi games has been very good in terms of ratings, with NBC4 leading in the 11 p.m. slot, Carlston said. NBC4 is No. 2 for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts, and doing well with its morning show as well, he added. “We think it is part of the Olympic halo effect, but we also think it has a lot to do with the fact that people are sampling this new way to see the newscast and that will continue on after,” Carlston said. When viewers tune in what they see are some firsts in news broadcasting, including a side rail – a banner running down the right side of the screen – showing the seven-day forecast for specific neighborhoods in the station’s wide coverage area. The weather center has 10 monitors, including three for radar images, and another that the weather forecaster can draw on. Other reporters can use a perceptive pixel screen – a giant iPad-like device with a touch screen to bring up graphic elements to enhance their story. A secondary news reporting position uses three large monitors through which an anchor can interact with other reporters on the scene of a story as though they are standing together. “It connects the viewer to the set and into the storytelling location,” Carlston said. But all this flashy technology doesn’t mean much if there isn’t the content to back it up. To Marks, the CSUN journalism instructor, there is no compelling reason to watch local news because of a lack of in-depth coverage of stories that matter most. From his observation, KABC does the best with weighty news stories while other stations gravitate toward the “easy” story of crime, police chases or celebrities, he said. “Local news has deteriorated and the battle was won by those who made it more entertainment-oriented and not news-oriented,” said Marks, who worked for KNBC throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Carlston rejects such criticism, saying “Local television is still recognized as the most believable medium out of all the mediums that are out there.” Emotional farewells The move by the station comes at the tail end of a decade-long relocation of the network from Burbank to Universal City. The station’s sales, community affairs and finance departments arrive at the new facility by Feb. 28. The NBC network news staff makes the move in March followed by Telemundo station KVEA TV 52 in May once its new broadcast set up is complete. In total, 600 employees will relocate to the Universal lot. Since the technology backbone for NBC4, NBC network, and KVEA is brand-new, it has been built for the future and is more accessible than in the Burbank studio, said Jim Moyer, the manager of information technology and digital media at NBC4. “We built in a lot of capacity and it’s a lot more fortified,” Moyer said. “We had backups at the old location but not to this degree.” Since moving, Carlston believes the news staff is energized by a work environment that includes floor-to-ceiling windows, color-coded workstations with a cushioned sitting area to facilitate interaction, high ceilings and a digital breaking news ticker in English and Spanish. Still, the relocation was an emotional one for many employees who spent their careers at the Burbank studio and its rich history in television lore. It was not uncommon for news staffers to pass “Tonight Show” hosts Johnny Carson and Jay Leno in the hallway, or see cast members from soap opera “Days of Our Lives,” which also filmed in the building. “They do not miss the other place, they just miss the memories,” Carlston said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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