Kusa-tv: The long view

In Denver, the "Mile High City," Gannett's KUSA-TV is miles ahead of its competitors, not only in news ratings, but also in its ability to translate its substantial ratings lead into advertising revenues.

Dusty Saunders, TV critic for the Rocky Mountain News, notes KUSA-TV has long been a powerhouse in the nation's 18th-largest market, particularly when it comes to its 10 p.m. newscast.

Kusa-tv's news draws viewers back to the NBC affiliate, even when many have strayed to CBS for Survivor or ABC's Millionaire. In the month of July, KUSA-TV had a 17.6 household share for its 5 p.m. newscast, Monday through Friday. McGraw-Hill's KMGH-TV, the ABC affiliate, had a 10.4 share and CBS-owned KCNC-TV scored a 13.1 share. The WB-affiliate, KWGN-TV, owned by Tribune Broadcasting, and Fox-owned KDVR-TV don't compete with an early evening newscast.

But at 10 p.m., Colorado viewers reach for their remotes. In May 1999, kusa-tv's 10 p.m. telecast, 9News, recorded a 32 share, making it the highest-rated late-news show in any top-40 market. However, the gap between stations for the 10 p.m. newscast has since narrowed.

In July 2000, kusa-tv's 10 p.m. news registered a 21.9 share. CBS affiliate kcnc-tv's News 4 Late Edition, recorded a 14.3 share at 10 p.m. KMGH-TV, 7 News at 10 notched an 8.5 share in the late-news battle.

Two stations air news at 9 p.m.: The WB's KWGN-TV has a 7.6 share; and Fox's KDVR-TV, which jumped into the news competition on July 16, had no ratings posted. Former KUSA-TV sportscaster Ron Zappolo is the new co-anchor at kdvr.

Between 5 and 7 a.m., KUSA-TV gets about a quarter of the audience. But there are defections. At noon, KCNC-TV holds onto enough of its The Price is Right's audience to win the noon-to-12:30 half hour. KCNC-TV, with Rosie O'Donnell as a lead-in, also wins the 4 to 5 p.m. news race. But later in the day, viewers return to Channel 9. At 5 and 6 p.m., it's KUSA-TV 9News making it the most-watched newscast in that time slot.

In Denver's booming economy, which has a $59 billion effective buying income, strong ratings bring sales.

BIA Financial Network estimates that kusa rang up $90 million in gross revenues in 1999. Among Gannett stations, only WXIA-TV Atlanta, with $93 million, and KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul with $92 million had higher estimated earnings than KUSA-TV last year, when Gannett's combined estimated television revenues were $858.8 million, according to BIA.

In the mid 1970s, Channel 9-then KBTV-TV, an ABC affiliate-made a full-fledged commitment to news as their primary product, says Roger Ogden, who was kbtv news director then. When Gannett bought the station in 1979, it changed the call letters to kusa-Gannett owns wusa in Washington and USA Today-and changed kusa's network affiliation in 1995.

"This was back before the conventional wisdom was this was what you needed to do," said Ogden, now KUSA-TV president and general manager. Ogden, who left NBC's Superstation in London to rejoin KUSA-TV last year, credits this move to former General Manager Al Flanagan, who recognized that "local news was really the key to the business."

Kusa-tv's newsroom staff numbers over 100, and several of KUSA-TV news, technical and production staff members have 20 years tenure or more. KUSA-TV photographers have won nine first-place awards from the National Press Photographers Association in the last two decades. Manny Sotelo, kusa chief videographer, is the NPPA's immediate past president.

Channel 9's bond with its viewers extends far beyond the camera-to-picture link. Kusa-tv's community outreach encompasses three franchise projects: "9 Health Fair," "9 Cares, Colorado Shares," and "9 Who Care."

The 21-year-old health fair draws over 100,000 each spring for health screenings. Other components air during the rest of the year. Two food drives, in the spring and around Thanksgiving, are components of "9 Cares, Colorado Shares," Ogden said. The "9 Who Care" program honors nine Colorado citizens for their volunteer work with on-air profiles during the news and then a live hour-long telecast of the awards ceremonies.

"This is a multiyear commitment that has been in place for over 20 years," Ogden says. "The focus on the community has very much been a commitment on the part of the station for an extended period of time. It's not the fad-of-the-year where you start something, you stop that and start something else."

But even long-term commitments end. In June, the 10 p.m. news anchor Ed Sardella retired after more than two decades as the principal face of 9News. He co-anchored with Mike Landess until 1993's hiring of Adele Arakawa from WBBM-TV Chicago.

Three years before, Sardella relinquished his spot on the 5 and 6 p.m. shows to Jim Benemann, a 9News reporter who rejoined KUSA-TV in April 1997 after working as prime anchor at KGW-TV Portland, Ore. Benemann replaced Sardella at 10 p.m. at the end of June. Now semiretired, Sardella will be available for fill-in work.

"It's not going to hurt them," Saunders said about Sardella's retirement from the daily anchor grind. But The Denver Post's TV critic Joanne Ostrow, believes that with Sardella gone, viewers may be inclined to sample the other stations.

Ostrow said that while Sardella was perceived as a hard-nosed journalist, "Benemann is more of a TV personality." Arakawa gets high marks from both newspaper TV observers.

"Viewing patterns are so unpredictable in the summer that I don't know that we've been through a pretty good litmus test yet," said Patti Dennis, kusa-tv's vice president of news. She has spent 20 years at KUSA-TV, the last five as news director. Looking to the future, KUSA-TV operates a popular Web site and has forged a news-sharing alliance with The Denver Post.

"The landscape is changing in terms of where people get information, how and when they access it and which news organization do they feel comfortable getting it from," she says. "We are looking at what are opportunities to continue to provide information in a variety of vehicles. I think that's how you're going to continue to stay on top." n