LOCAL NEWS... One station fights the odds... is in large part a cinéma vérité chronicle of the managers, producers, reporters, and film crews at WCNC-TV, a local station in Charlotte, North Carolina. The series begins at a turning point for the station, which, in 1999, is in third place in the ratings and has just been acquired by a media conglomerate that says it wants to achieve success by providing quality news that addresses important local issues.
But in a larger sense, the series is about the problematic nature of local news across America -- a ratings-driven system of TV journalism built on crime, disaster, scandal, and cutesy human interest, all reported in ever-shrinking bite-size chunks. Even stations that want to operate differently are stymied by industry norms and market pressures. And all the while, major issues get lost in the media shuffle; communities feel disenfranchised; public opinion is shaped by hype instead of history; and priorities are blurred by constraints of time, and what does -- and doesn't -- make a story "hot."
The following outlines the events documented in each episode of the series -- an ongoing real-life drama with a cast of "characters" whose parts are shaped by forces great and small, and often beyond their control.
PART ONE: To Work A Miracle
As a wave of bomb threats intimidates Charlotte's schools, WCNC's newly hired News Director, Keith Connors, is caught in an ethical tug-of-war. Should he rush to report critical but unsubstantiated information, or wait for corroboration? His decision to hold off costs him a valued "scoop," but he hopes it will earn the station increased viewer trust.
Meanwhile, several white families have sued to overturn Charlotte's landmark 1971 plan to desegregate schools by busing students. The trial reveals racial divisions in the community -- and in the newsroom itself. Education reporter Sterlin Benson Webber (an African American woman) becomes a reluctant conciliator between WCNC and the city. Despite heated newsroom debates, she is unable to get the airtime she wants to cover the story in depth.
On the internal front, long-time producer Wanda Johnson Stokes resigns, believing she has hit a "glass ceiling" because she is African American. Her parting observations about the demands of business, journalism, and community foretell a troubled road ahead for Keith, whose mission is to reconcile these often-conflicting interests.
PART TWO: Change and Consequences
The station's make-over by national broadcasting conglomerate A. H. Belo is mirroring the transformation of once-sleepy Charlotte into the New South's banking capital. At the station as in the city, much of the old is being both gratefully replaced -- and sadly sacrificed -- to make way for the new.
A case in point is veteran reporter Beatrice Thompson, a native Charlottean and the city's first black woman TV journalist when she debuted on-air 22 years ago. Rumors about her pending dismissal are circulating. Is it because of her race, age, gender, informal style, or just because management wants someone fresh and new? The reasons are never given (management never discusses personnel issues publicly), but the popular Thompson spreads the word among her legion of friends and fans, and the station is suddenly threatened by outraged demonstrators and a lawsuit.
Thompson's departure prompts Connors and General Manager Rick Keilty to meet with angry black community members and confront their assertion that minority issues (and professionals) are overlooked at WCNC. Instead of finding common ground, the meeting grows increasingly contentious. And as if to illustrate the difference in perspective between the station and the community, Webber feels ever-more thwarted in her efforts to cover the desegregation trial, which she believes Connors now views as a "dull" education story.
PART THREE: A Working Team
With an assortment of staff departures and new arrivals, Connors feels he has assembled a winning news team. When a powerful hurricane threatens the coastline, WCNC's extensive coverage wins kudos and, not incidentally, boosts ratings.
But tides of dissatisfaction are also rising at the station. Webber's expertise on the education beat is overlooked when the momentous desegregation verdict comes down; less informed reporters are assigned to cover key elements of the breaking story, in the name of "team coverage." Anchorwoman Alicia Booth, an attractive blond who has worked long and hard not to be dismissed as a "bimbo," is demoted to reporter when an independent consultant's research says she doesn't appeal to female viewers. And Mike Redding, a newly hired star reporter, rebels at having to churn out live hurricane updates for days, instead of pursuing his gift for "people" stories.
Connors's vision of a dream-team begins to fade, and he laments the personal and professional solitude of a news manager's life.
PART FOUR: Grace Under Pressure
As the winds of the hurricane wind down, so do WCNC's ratings -- to the consternation of the new management. At their direction, Connors scrambles to re-format the nightly newscast with a new anchor and a heightened emphasis on breaking stories, especially in crime coverage.
Connors leans on crime reporter Glenn Counts and Booth to break new developments in the investigation of an eight-year-old boy's murder. Booth's inside law-enforcement sources provide the needed scoop, but she challenges Connors over running with the information, because it could jeopardize police work in the case.
At the same time, would-be conciliator Webber is confronting the most divisive chapter yet in the continuing school desegregation debate. A fiery, polarized school board vote challenges her ideals -- and her tight deadline.
All the pressure culminates in the debut of the newly formatted newscast, which collapses into a technical fiasco. With tempers flaring in the newsroom, Connors steps forward and assumes the mantle of leadership as he never has before.
PART FIVE: There's No Place Like Home
The series and the year simultaneously draw to a close. Connors goes home for a family Christmas celebration in the small town he left behind to pursue his profession. There, he confronts the dilemma of this rapidly changing industry: how can local news be truly local, if it's produced by an ever-changing assemblage of nomads?
On his return to Charlotte, A. H. Belo higher-ups visit WCNC to assess the progress of their ambitious strategy -- and, not surprisingly, find it lacking. Webber is stunned by a poor job review and wonders if she should quit the news business. Alicia Booth announces that she's landed an anchor spot in Cleveland and is preparing to start over in a new city. And on the same day that Counts is arrested for trespassing on a crime scene, Belo's evaluators counsel a new direction for the newscast: more aggressive crime coverage.
Nonetheless, on New Year's Eve 1999, the atmosphere in the newsroom is both reflective and optimistic. At midnight in the control room, Connors conducts his news team in spirited coverage of the New Millennium celebration. But afterwards, the question remains: is WCNC's experiment of marrying journalistic integrity with increased revenue a shining hope for the broadcast news industry, or is it an impossible dream?