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July 20th, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

FIRST. LIVE. LOCO.

Fox 12's mayhem and mugshots are driving Portland's TV news insane.

     
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Forget London bombers, Caribbean hurricanes or Baghdad insurgents. Portland, in its own right, is one scary town.

Scumbags pay for sex next to a local school. Cell-phone voyeurs lurk in parking lots. Perverts trawl the Internet for jailbait. A freak hides a spy camera in a Starbucks bathroom in West Linn. A teenager is pummeled in Milwaukie...a weirdo exposed himself again...your neighbors are jibbering meth fiends. In fact, you might want to buy a Saturday-night special and hunker down at home.

Yes, that's Portland. As least, that's the City of Roses according to the 10 o'clock news on KPTV Channel 12, Portland's Fox affiliate. In Fox 12's world, the metro area is sliding into chaos: meth, mayhem and misadventure from Kelso to Salem.

Local TV news has never been known for its subtlety. Angling for a share of audience squeezed by cable, the Internet and other distractions, local news has a well-earned reputation for responding with sex-offender exposés, smarmy cute-animal features and wall-to-wall coverage any time a kid (or a blonde) disappears or a storm threatens.

Fox 12 is a breed apart, though, from its three local competitors. Even though Portland's crime rates in most categories are down, many nights the newscast hosted by Wayne Garcia and Shauna Parsons seems like one crime story after another. Among the station's calling cards are the near-nightly METH WATCH feature and "Cyber Stings," in which the station lures idiots into humiliating exposure with online promises of sex with teens.

And more than its individual stories, Fox 12's tone sets it apart. Its urgent reporters frequently brandish props as they report LIVE from the scene of EXCLUSIVE stories, which come wrapped in flashy, bold-faced graphics.

"It's the most highly packaged newscast in the market," says John Ray, a former executive news director for KOIN. "They try to be live all over the place. They don't have the largest staff in town-they just look it."

This may be the journalistic equivalent of Pop Rocks-sugary, crackly, nutritionally void. If you tune in, odds are you won't see a story about health-care entitlements, utility deregulation or housing policy.

But guess what? It seems to work. Last month, for the first time ever, Fox 12's 10 o'clock had a larger audience than any other local news show at any time during the day, according to the Nielsen ratings (see sidebar, page 23).

Even though the 10 o'clock broadcast doesn't face head-to-head news competition, surpassing its rivals is a huge coup for the station.

"It's still late news, no matter how you slice it," says Patrick McCreery, Fox 12's 34-year-old news director. "Plus, I'm competing against CSI and other prime-time shows."

"We get the rap for doing crime, but that's because we own up to it," McCreery says. "If you compare us with the other newscasts in town, they do just as much crime news. They may just not send a reporter out on it. Our presentation is what makes us unique. It's going to be more interesting, more energetic-and hopefully more informative."

A few months ago, an anonymous TV newsroom employee started a local media blog called PDX Media Insider (find it at pdxmediawatch.blogspot.com). Fox 12 is a major topic of discussion. One anonymous poster recently called the station's staff "bottom of the barrel scurvy." Another wrote: "People watch it for the same reason they stare at car accidents."

Other critics are more measured but no more impressed by Fox 12's tabloid style. "If all you do is crime, it's easy," says Mike Rausch, news director at ABC affiliate KATU. "You don't have to know about government. You don't have to know about health care or finance. It's the lowest possible common denominator, and it's not reflective of life in Portland."

McCreery, in his second year running Fox 12's newsroom, says that as far as the latter criticism goes, well, numbers don't lie.

"If it's not reflective of the community, why are ratings growing?" he says. "That's what the ratings system is there for-to reflect the community. Some stations take the approach that they know what Portland needs and they're going to force-feed it to viewers."

The reason people care is that a lot of money is at stake. "[News broadcasts are] absolutely profitable," Ray says. "When I was at KOIN, our news budget was about $4 million. Revenues attached to News were about $8 to 12 million, depending on the year. It did quite well for them."

Some news-biz insiders worry rival stations will fall under the sway of Fox 12's feverish style, and offer more shock tactics and fear-stoking crime coverage.

"For those of us wishing for a newsier, less crime-based newscast, they scare us," writes the anonymous blogger who runs PDX Media Insider in an email to WW. "They're successful at what they're doing right now, so our bosses are likely to emulate, not challenge.

"You're starting to see more crime coverage on KGW," the blogger adds. "And when they go, so goes the neighborhood."

It's not that Fox 12 is an unstoppable juggernaut. Last week, the station's general manager resigned. Industry scuttlebutt attributed Teresa Burgess' departure to a failure to turn ratings success into ad dollars.

But there's no question that the 10 o'clock broadcast is Portland's most talked-about news show within the business. Or that, in its own incredibly low-brow way, it's kinda fun to watch. Did you hear the one about the 14-year-old who stole wine from a Rite-Aid? Man....

Given that everyone in the news business seems to be gabbing about Fox 12, we decided to dive into the station's wacky world. We've plucked a few stories that exemplify how Fox 12 does its thing-and just to help guide the way, we devised some icons based on the raw ingredients of the city's wildest newscast.

Keep in mind that the cumulative effect of an hourlong show is much greater than any one story. Still, we urge you to proceed with caution-things are about to get dangerous. Roll tape!

the case of the starbucks minicam

AIR DATE: JULY 12

This story follows the station's blazing "FIRST ON FOX" graphic, one of many ways it brands its stories as exclusives. Reporter David Wilson is at a Starbucks in West Linn, where a tiny spy camera turned up inside a roll of toilet paper in the women's bathroom. (Wilson holds up a fat roll of Charmin, so no one misses that detail.) "Customers," Wilson reports, "are calling it both sick and disturbing."

"It's an ugly thought," says one woman. "It makes you want to stay home."

"Tonight," Wilson intones, "some believe that high-tech devices like these are slowly eroding our right to privacy."

Back to the woman who now wants to stay home: "They can get you on a satellite. They can get you on your cell phone. They can get you anywhere."

"speaking out against a peeping tom"

air date: june 22

Lurking sex creeps, dark streets and quivering neighbors are all staples of Fox 12's 10 o'clock crime-a-thon. The station seems to be more interested in a story's prurience than its significance-and if a spooky perpetrator remains at large, so much the better.

This is a prime example of the genre. The story opens with Fox 12's Jamie Wilson on a dark corner of Southeast Powell Boulevard. Nearby, she says, a Peeping Tom recently spied on a woman through her apartment window. "Even though four police officers searched for him," Wilson says in an ominous tone, "tonight this Peeping Tom is still at large." The victim, Wilson says, had just changed into her pajamas when she noticed something odd. She threw open her blinds to find a man crouching and touching himself. The victim, identified as Jennifer, chased the scumbag away.

The Frightened Neighbor is a key component of this sort of story. In this case, a woman who lives in Jennifer's apartment complex offers this: "I was surprised...I hope it don't happen again...."

Jennifer herself, whom we see only as a profile shadow against a brick wall, has an extraordinary crime-fighting tip: "I'd just say, close your blinds."

six sex offenders...at the same motel!

AIR DATE: July 4

Local news broadcasts have become inexplicably obsessed with sex offenders-who are they? Where are they? Are they close to a school? According to some observers, Fox 12 outstrips 'em all in this department. "They will always lead with a sex offender if they can," says former KGW reporter Walden Kirsch.

Imagine how awesome it is, then, to find six sex offenders in one place.

Fox 12's July 4 newscast opens with a LIVE REPORT from Kevin Coari, standing on a dark street, a few illuminated billboards in the distance. Coari hoists a thick sheaf of paper: the criminal records of half a dozen sex offenders. "All of them call this motel home." Lucky them-the Your Host Motel on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard looks like a real garden spot. Coari goes on to detail the men's crimes-"sodomy to rape, victims 2 to 20"-and find a neighbor to say, "I'm a little freaked out."

Coari's report ends and the newscast moves on. But half an hour later, the show's anchors announce that there will be an "update" to this shocking story.

Does this mean that Coari has learned something he didn't know half an hour before? Or is the "update" a trick of the trade designed to ramp up the drama?

Considering that it is mysteriously daylight when Coari reappears on screen, our money is on the latter. The substance of the update: The station has discovered another sex offender at a neighboring motel. Extra! Extra!

"you may have seen nanny 911..."

AIR DATE: July 4

Portland newscasts frequently do "stories" promoting shows on their parent networks, a practice that has increased with the proliferation of reality-TV shows. Since those shows are "real," they must be "news," yes? (KGW recently devoted two segments on two nights to local auditions for NBC's Trump franchise The Apprentice.) Stories are one thing, though, and pimping your anchors is another.

Anchor Shauna Parsons announces this story: "You may have seen Nanny 911...." The Fox reality show features British nannies taming American hell-spawn. "Well, those crazy moments happen over at Wayne's house, too." Fellow anchor Wayne Garcia gives a hey-it's-my-job shrug and says, "I'm not sure how I let them talk me into this, but..." The screen cuts to the Garcia compound, where his two cute young daughters are bouncing on the keys of a piano. Wayne, clad in shorts and sandals, fills us in on just how to rein in cute little devils like this. "One of the parenting tips we've found works pretty well is something we like to call 'distraction.'"

(Whoa, Wayne-run that technical term by us one more time!) When a kid is holding something he/she shouldn't be, replace it with a toy. Further insights: "Something else that works pretty well is positive reinforcement...Kids love attention...When they're teething, they often act out." Huh. Garcia notes that he is not a parenting expert-but did you know about Nanny 911?

video voyeurs

AIR DATE: July 6

Reporter Jamie Wilson stands on a dark street-do we see a visual theme developing?-this time in Beaverton. She holds up her cell phone. "These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a cell phone without a camera," she says. The shot pulls back to reveal a man shooting Wilson with a handheld video camera-also, the reporter declares, ubiquitous. "For people who use these gadgets to exploit others, a new law could soon make them pay," she says. (Leave it to the killjoys in Salem to spoil all the fun....) The station makes a rare foray into the halls of government to report on state lawmakers' concern that "some minicam voyeurs have gone too far." And then we are obliged with a shot of a woman undressing in a locker room. Then an "area woman" in a parking lot speaks: "There are people going up people's skirts and stuff...sometimes it can be bad." Another woman: "Voyeurism is a huge problem." Once again, long after this segment ends, the newscast returns to the intrepid Wilson for an "update."

a meth lab...in a trailer park?

AIR DATE: July 5

Meth may be a plague on the community, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was the best thing that ever happened for Fox 12. The 10 o'clock newscast runs a METH WATCH feature almost every night, and the nasty drug's presence seems to be enough to elevate trivial police-blotter entries to full-fledged stories.

For this story, for example, the station dispatches reporter David Wilson all the way to the Yamhill County jail-where nothing is happening at the moment-to report that two alleged meth-makers were busted in a Newberg trailer park. These two were also responsible for a lab in North Portland, and Fox 12 tracks down former neighbors there to get their take, as well. (Surprise: No one favors a meth lab in their neighborhood.)

Worst of all: These repeat-offenders' latest alleged lab was near a school.

cybersting!

AIR DATE: JULY 12

Some would call Fox 12's recurring "CyberSting" features entrapment. The station teams up with a group of cyber-vigilantes called Perverted Justice to entrap would-be Humbert Humberts by constructing fake Lolitas online. When targets agree to meet the "youth" in person, they show up at door for the "rendezvous" and instead are greeted by a Fox camera crew and a reporter shouting questions. Tonight, Perverted Justice's three cyber-sleuths nail a guy named Nick. In an online chat, Nick asks a fictional teenage girl if she wants to try "going down" on a guy. When Nick shows up at the Gresham house where Fox 12 lies in wait, reporter Kerry Tomlinson springs the trap, chasing Nick down the street.

FOX 12: What are you doing here?

NICK: Nothing. I don't know what.

FOX 12: Are you here to see a young girl?

NICK: No. She told me to call her and then that was about it so...

FOX 12: How old do you think she is?

NICK: I don't know. She told me...I don't know.

FOX 12: Do you think this is fair to do to a young girl?

NICK: No, it's not fair.

After providing Nick's full name and pics from his online profile, the Fox 12 "I-Team" tracks him down to a Vancouver apartment building. Nick soon informs a camera man that he will "knock you the f**k out, you and that stupid b*tch."

News interns Adrian Chen, Christian Gaston, Robert Hamrick and Ryan Hume contributed to this report.


YOUR GUIDE

perverts on the loose!
live from the place where something once happened
your scary neighbor
the terrifying world of technology
no, duh!
we are investigatin'!
get me the prop department
meth mania!
your children are in danger
blatant self-promotion

Nielsen ratings are based on a small sample of a given market-in Portland's case, electronic meters installed in 400 metro-area homes. While some in the TV business question their accuracy, the Nielsens are the industry-standard measure of viewership, and everyone in local TV obsesses over them any way.

The ratings for the first week in July show Fox 12 averaging about 160,000 viewers a night at 10 o'clock, an estimated 16 percent of people who are actually watching TV at that hour. The next most watched local TV news show is NBC affiliate KGW's 11 pm broadcast, which draws closer to 140,000 viewers on average, according to those July ratings.

The same ratings numbers show CBS affiliate KOIN (which currently lacks a news director and is seen, within the industry, as sinking fast) and ABC affiliate KATU drawing about 107,000 and 90,000 viewers for their 11 pm shows, respectively.

Channel 12, known by the call letters KPTV, debuted in 1952. It was Oregon's first TV station. The station, which has aired its flagship news show at 10 o'clock since 1970, was once known as the city's most staid TV news operation. According to McCreery and others, that began to change around 2002, when the station's parent company, Meredith Communications, merged it with another station, switched its affiliation to Fox and began to remake its news broadcast.

An affectionate look at the station's history can be found at kptv.home.comcast.net .

Though Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation briefly owned Channel 12 in 2001, the Fox Network's parent company soon traded the station to Meredith, which owns nine other news-producing stations around the country. (Meredith stations are affiliated with different national networks.) The Fox national network's famously right-leaning news operation has no involvement in Channel 12's news.

Many Fox 12 stories are archived online at www.kptv.com .

 
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