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Extended Interview: Bill Kurtis

May 24, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: WBBM has been at the top and now it’s fifth out of five.


TERENCE SMITH: What caused it to decline? Which is another way of asking about what’s caused local news to decline. But let’s talk about WBBM. What caused it to decline?

BILL KURTIS: It was maybe the one–the top station in the country at one time. It began to lose some audience, and then management decisions have to be made on how you stop the slide.

Well, there was a decision made to go tabloid, to really hard sell. We call it the “scary announcer.” And I was on the air at the time. I was called the PBS guy in an MTV world, and I was really a little out of place. But there it came, and we drove viewers away. So we helped accelerate the slide.

Once there, we really didn’t give them an opportunity or reason to come back. It’s very difficult to rebuild after someone has lost trust in you. The danger of a new alternative is that people don’t think you’re covering the news anymore, and they can’t trust you to serve them with what is important or happening in the community. And so they’ll go to someone else for the news. They may come back on a big story to get an in-depth report, but you’re serving a different reason.

TERENCE SMITH: You mean if, for example, last night they did an interview, a live in-studio interview with Shimon Peres, the Israeli leader. That’s, of course, at the cost of something else.

BILL KURTIS: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: So the question is: Do you come away from this show feeling that they’ve covered the waterfront?

BILL KURTIS: That’s the question.


BILL KURTIS: Some nights I don’t feel that they have covered the waterfront. As a matter of fact, I had heard a headline that five children were shot–five dead in the National Zoo in Washington. About 9:30 I got the word, so I tuned in immediately to Channel 2 to find out–

TERENCE SMITH: At 10 o’clock.

BILL KURTIS: Yes. –true or false, and getting some more information about it. They chose not to lead with that. I went to the competition. They did lead with it.
Now, the editorial decision may have been right. They weren’t killed. They were wounded, one dead, I believe. But I didn’t know it at that time, and I stayed with the competition on that night.

TERENCE SMITH: So they lost you that night.

BILL KURTIS: That night they lost me. And that is the reason there is competition, the reason you want to be first on a story and really own that story.

We learned a lot of the old news traditions here. You’ve got to be first and fast. You’ve got to be there every night and earn the trust of a viewer so they can depend on you. I’m sure that will happen here. Until the viewer realizes this is an alternative newscast, I’m going to see Shimon Peres, very interesting, but it may be closer to what I would find on PBS than a reflection of my community.

TERENCE SMITH: You know this market. Do you have a prediction, a forecast? I mean, do you think they’ll find an audience? Do you think it’s there?

BILL KURTIS: First of all, I would have done the same thing. We’re all rooting for it. I mean, we–we would hope that something works. But–and so it’s easy for me to sit back and now say, well, what else would we do here?

I don’t know–I’m sorry. I don’t believe that they’re going to find an audience the size of their competition with this newscast. I think what may be the next alternative is to take the stories, take the high story count and short and kind of scramble it and find a new way to deliver it so that you are delivering maybe on a broad band second channel in-depth reports, recognize this as true visual headlines to serve somebody who wants a quick read and then can go to bed. That would give us more time and serve all needs at once. You have an e-mail and have them all coordinated. That seems to be the future.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you imagine, as somebody who’s spent much of his career in local news, can you imagine that this will have a contagious effect on other stations and broadcasts, either in this city or around the country?

BILL KURTIS: If this is successful–and success being defined in a respectable audience that’s easy to sell to advertisers–it will change the face of local news in this country, absolutely without question.

TERENCE SMITH: And be emulated?

BILL KURTIS: And be emulated as–as often and as many places–it will be the best thing that will ever happen, frankly, to journalism because through the ranks of local stations come all our reporters and producers and cameramen to go wherever they will.

TERENCE SMITH: And if it fails?

BILL KURTIS: If it fails, it will be another attempt that will fail, and we will go back to what is there now. So nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I think probably nothing lost. Valiant attempt.