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Recent viewers of KITV 4 in Hawaii may have noticed some glitches: a reporter’s microphone that is turned off even though the reporter is speaking to the camera; a mic that is still hot when it should have been muted; a camera cutaway to a video clip for another story, not the one being broadcast live; an anchor momentarily confused by what’s scrolling on a teleprompter.
The minor misfires are due in part to the ABC affiliate’s switch to a high-definition format that launched in early December. KITV fans can now enjoy the 6 p.m. broadcasts of Paula Akana, Yunji de Nies, Kenny Choi, Moanikeala Nabarro and Paul Drewes, for example, in the same fashion as viewers of Hawaii News Now and KHON 2 have enjoyed for years.
Less evident to viewers is the unsettled mood on the other side of the cameras. For longtime broadcast industry veterans, there is a great unease that changes at KITV will further dumb down the news, make it less local and community-focused, and violate a tenet that owning a Federal Communications Commission license is a public trust.
SJL is the same company that bought KHON, the Fox affiliate, in 2006 and implemented a plan calling for cost-cutting and automation.
SJL’s upheaval at KHON resulted in massive job cuts and resignations, including the walking out of General Manager Rick Blangiardi. He now leads Hawaii News Now, which is the news department for three stations: CBS affiliate KGMB, NBC affiliate KHNL and MyNetworkTV affiliate KFVE.
Others stayed at KHON, including longtime anchor Joe Moore. But he made clear his views on his new bosses.
“It’s clear to almost everyone at the station that our new owners are destroying KHON,” Moore told what was then called the Honolulu Advertiser. “Their barbaric downsizing plan will severely cripple our ability to present relevant news and public service programming.”
Now there’s alarm that what happened to KHON is happening to KITV. Indeed, a year after SJL bought KHON, SJL sold — or flipped, in the parlance — the station to another California media company. The station is now owned by Virginia-based Media General.
SJL has also hired the same general manager who replaced Blangiardi at KHON and oversaw the cost-cutting and tech upgrade — Joe McNamara — to replace KITV General Manager Andrew Jackson, who left in August.
Civil Beat was not able to reach SJL in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and did not hear back from executives at Erie News Now in Pennsylvania, which is owned by Lilly Broadcasting, a partner with SJL.
When asked whether SJL plans to flip KITV as it did KHON, McNamara (or “Joe Mac,” as he’s known) said SJL had “no set plan in place” for the station.
“But somebody has to step up and spend millions of dollars on this,” he said, referring to KITV. “Somebody had to take a gamble and invest in this. The (Hawaii) market has changed. It’s healthy, the economy and so forth, low unemployment. But it has not grown by leaps and bounds.”
In McNamara’s view, KITV needs to get with the times and position itself to deliver not just on television but online, through mobile devices and through social media.
“I’m excited to be back in Honolulu, and I love what I do — I’ve been in the broadcasting business for 35 years, and I still believe that it has validity,” he said. “Some fear the digital age, but I say it helped preserve us and allow us a platform to get out there through other means.”
McNamara said SJL is investing $5 million into KITV, which includes the purchase price and upgrades. But the transition also means people will be leaving, and for a variety of reasons. They include Lydia Mahelona, the receptionist at KITV, who marked her last day Dec. 23.
Phone calls to KITV are being handled by a new voice-mail system, one that is also experiencing some kinks. When Civil Beat called Thursday — Christmas Eve — seeking to reach McNamara, a voice message said the day was Tuesday, Dec. 22.
It’s not clear yet how many people have already left KITV, or will be leaving. But McNamara dismissed as rumor that the numbers would be substantial and explained that some of the positions are part-time jobs.
He estimated that, of the 100 or so employees at the station, “We’re talking about less than 10 percent, because a lot chose to leave on their own, some had other opportunities and for others contracts were running out.”
In terms of on-air personalities, reporter Andrew Pereira left KITV late last month to join the communications team of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Morning co-anchor Ann Sterling is engaged to be married and is said to be moving back to the mainland while Ashley Moser has taken a job in Utah. McNamara said KITV is in talks to retain veteran personality Pamela Young.
(Full disclosure: Civil Beat is KITV’s media partner, and its reporters appear regularly on the station.)
McNamara said the station will not cut back on its sales staff (one rumor predicts that all sales will be conducted online), but he did acknowledge that KITV is considering leasing some of its office space at the One Archer Lane condominium building on South King Street.
“We have 323,000 square feet, way beyond what we need,” he said. “They had 6,000 feet it never developed in the building.”
The employees affected the most by KITV’s shift toward automation are those in engineering and production. Visitors to the station will find what seem like miles of multicolored cable strewn across the studio, out of sight of the cameras but a potential floor hazard. The older cameras are being replaced by cameras on tripods and pedestals. But McNamara points out that the number of studio cameras will increase from three to seven.
Still, the automation means the loss of human beings, some of whom spent years at KITV building the station. For many current and former employees at the station, it’s like losing family — a loss compounded by the harsh reality that the types of jobs these employees held may no longer be needed in today’s marketplace. On one of the station’s floors hangs dozens of photos showing the long and diverse range of people that have worked at the station over the decades.
“Although KITV is no longer the news powerhouse it once was, it is not the fault of the hard-working news staff that is still struggling against terrible odds to try to turn out a quality product,” said Denby Fawcett, a longtime KITV reporter who is now a Civil Beat columnist. “The reporters, anchors and cameramen are blameless. It is impossible to function as a news person when you are getting mixed messages and little support from uncaring owners.”
Two local media experts say they are skeptical that SJL will serve the public good, noting that what is happening at KITV is the trend nationally. It’s a trend driven fundamentally by the bottom line.
“What it means is that, once again, we will have less people trying to cover what’s going on in our community,” said Chris Conybeare, president of Media Council Hawaii. “They’ll claim they are doing just as well, but it’s very hard to do it with people with less experience. It adds up to a disservice to our community.”
Conybeare laments that Federal Communication Commission licenses are being used to make money rather than support the public interest.
“We are upset that people are losing jobs, that there is a diminished news product, less localism from a station licensed to serve our local community,” he said.
Gerald Kato, a journalism professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, worked as a political reporter and assignment editor at KITV in the 1980s.
“Historically, you always had a good news crew,” he said. “There has always been a competitive news market here, and people at KITV always did their best in this competitive environment — sometimes without much access to resources. … They are a scrappy news organization, always trying to to a credible job reporting the news without the kinds of resources other stations had.”
Today, Kato and Conybeare say, the TV news focus is, unfortunately, on weather and traffic. But to McNamara, that’s exactly the point.
Weather and traffic are the No. 2 and No. 3 drivers of TV news content, he said, and local stations have to respond to what the audience demands. Part of KITV’s upgrades are devoted to improving the delivery of traffic and weather, which are often intertwined.
The No. 1 content driver, meanwhile, is breaking news, but rather than having that story at 6 p.m. or 10 p.m., in the modern world breaking means now.
McNamara points to the example of KITV’s morning crew. Rather than have a breaking news desk, why not have one of the two anchors handle it? And is there really all that much “breaking news” in a market the size of Honolulu’s anyway?
To some at KITV — which has longed lagged in the ratings compared with its rivals — and those who worked there or are paying close attention, the station has been late to catch up to changes in the local media market. McNamara is cautious not to blame Hearst, but he makes clear that SJL means to bring the station into the 21st century.
If all goes as planned, McNamara thinks the major changes at KITV will be worked out by February, including ironing out the tech upgrades and training the staff on the new systems. Several staffers Civil Beat spoke with expressed cautious optimism and even some excitement that KITV will eventually be better for the transition in spite of the pain of going through it.
Still, to people like Kato at UH Manoa, at its core TV news is about people.
“I understand that human beings cost money, but there is an argument to be made that they’re worth every penny, that technology can never replace a living, breathing human being, especially in an operation that involves connections to the community,” he said. “You can run a radio station out of a closet with satellite bringing in all the DJs and music and all of that. You don’t need to have a local presence.”
“But the TV stations, especially the ones that market themselves as having local roots, need to indeed have a local presence. … You need people with experience and knowledge of the community that they cover.”