Tailoring Local TV to Local Tastes
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 1999; Page A1
Cheeky shows like "Lips" are just for starters on WAMI (pronounced "whammy"). The station also produces "10's," which scans south Florida beaches for barely clad bodies, and lets viewers vote on their favorites. "Ocean Drive," (hosted by Attorney General Janet Reno's niece, model Hunter Reno), visits Miami's swank precincts in search of celebrities and decadence. And then there's the late-night "Kenneth's Freakquency," an after-hours mud roll with Miami's out-there characters, from drag queens to a cook whose ingredients include live mealworms.
For all its break-the-mold brashness, WAMI has a decidedly retro mission: to produce programs tailored to local tastes and idiosyncrasies. If television mogul Barry Diller has his way, WAMI and a nationwide string of similar stations will put the local back in TV.
That qualifies as a radical notion in television, which has largely shucked its community roots. TV stations once produced their own children's shows, sports, news and public affairs, even game shows. But with rising costs and intensifying competition, broadcast stations have largely abandoned local production, except for burgeoning and highly profitable local newscasts. National cable networks carry no local programming at all.
Diller has a history of pushing TV in new directions. He launched the Fox network a dozen years ago with similarly bold fare ("Studs," "Married ... with Children," etc.), and more recently retooled cable's QVC channel into a home-shopping juggernaut.
To counter TV's nationalization trend, Diller set up WAMI last June as a research and development laboratory for his company, USA Networks Inc., which operates 12 local TV stations nationwide, along with the Home Shopping Network and cable's USA Network and Sci-Fi Channel. WAMI is a ratings laggard, but its owner appears not to care. It is, he contends, the future.
"TV has gotten away from local original content, presented in an original way," declares Diller. "As this business gets more consolidated, [station owners] think globally, not locally. The result is all these stations are now run from out of town. They all look the same and talk the same. The newscasters in Detroit look like the newscasters in Kansas."
Look-alike shows aren't a problem for WAMI, a former Home Shopping station that operates out of a renovated former car dealership on the trendy Lincoln Road Mall.
Although it has lately added some familiar fare, such as "M*A*S*H" and "Roseanne" reruns, the station produces a quirky children's show (the daily "WAMI on Miami") hosted by four young Miamians, two nightly news magazines, a local-sports highlight program, and sundry eye candy like "10's" and "Ocean Drive." It has also begun carrying Miami Heat basketball games and Marlins baseball games, promoting itself as "The new home of the home teams."
Virtually everything the station creates is infused with irreverence, a sensibility encouraged by the youthful management cadre that Diller recruited from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Station executives say the idea is to create a distinctive "brand" an over-arching personality for the station that transcends any particular program.
One promotion for the station, created by former NBC executive Chris Sloan, shows a herd of sheep stamped with the call letters of Miami's nine major TV stations. "Don't watch the same old sheep," says an announcer.
"What we're trying to do is give viewers an alternative to what's out there," says WAMI's top executive, editor-in-chief Matti Leshem, who at 36 is one of the station's oldest employees. Attitude and unique programming, he says, will make a station stand out in an era of hundreds of TV broadcast and cable channels and millions of Internet options.
Attitude infects even the commercials that run on WAMI. Instead of the standard sales spiel, the station has an on-air host, Stephanie Lydecker, visit sponsors to create unrehearsed bits. Lydecker may cook a meal at a restaurant or ask customers at a photo store to show her their newly developed snapshots (one visit turned up a guy who'd gotten actress Cameron Diaz to pose with him).
The station's most conventional regular program is "The Times," a half-hour news magazine that airs at 7 p.m. and is updated at 10 p.m. Unlike mayhem-obsessed local newscasts, "The Times" doesn't report traffic accidents or lurid crime stories. It has featured only one murder in its seven months on the air and that report was about the aftermath of a homicide. The show is an eclectic mix of the serious and superficial Kosovo and city politics one moment, then a piece on a mock bake sale to help the financially struggling Florida Marlins baseball team.
"The Times" anchors, Amy Atkins and Ben Mankiewicz (son of former Democratic Party operative Frank), keep the tone loose and breezy, cracking wise about stories they introduce. Last week, for instance, after a mention of the "sweeps," the ratings period when stations air their most attention-grabbing stories, Atkins turned to the camera and quipped, "Yes, it's sweeps month. Coming up next: breast enlargement and grandmothers on Viagra!" She paused before adding, "Just kidding."
Nancy Swartz, a former Court TV producer who helps produce "The Times," says other newscasts "take themselves way too seriously ... I really feel this is the way [local] news will go."
Judging by the Nielsen ratings, viewers in south Florida seem to disagree. Seven months into its run, "The Times" has struggled to attract 1 percent of the region's households. By contrast, the city's top-rated newscast, on Spanish-language station WLTV, typically draws about seven times that audience.
"In a market like Miami, there's a plethora of local news," says John Garwood, vice president and general manager of Miami's WPLG-TV, an ABC affiliate owned by The Washington Post Co. "Their approach has been to do things in a slightly different fashion ... It clearly is not getting a lot of traction."
With ratings so low, and production expenses high, WAMI is all but sure to lose money. In fact, the station lost about $15 million last year on its $22 million operating budget.
That doesn't faze WAMI's parent company. "The Times," or at least a version of it, may be among the programs that will be exported beyond south Florida soon. Diller says some shows pioneered in Miami will be adapted for airing on four USA-owned stations later this year, although he won't say yet which programs and which cities.
Jon Miller, president of USA Network's broadcasting division, says the station is likely to lose money for another three to four years, a projection that doesn't alarm him. WAMI, he says, needs to triple its audience to capture 5 percent of the Miami TV market's $450 million in TV advertising. "We're right on course for that," he says.
The failure to attract a wide audience quickly also hasn't dimmed Diller's enthusiasm for the concept "It's like anything you start, it's a mess," he says but it has led to some retrenchment at the station.
Editor-in-chief Leshem has chucked a number of innovative but low-rated programs, such as "Out Loud," a local talk show, and "Generation N," an English-language magazine show featuring young Hispanics. Another casualty, "Radiovision," consisted of old radio dramas such as "The Shadow" played over images of people at the local mall. The station now runs movies during prime time, at least when it isn't airing Heat or Marlins games.
The pruning is a disappointment to observers like Terry Jackson, the TV critic at the Miami Herald. "I think they overstated what they thought they could accomplish," he says. "They abandoned a full-scale commitment to their local mission too early. But ultimately, it would be wrong to pronounce this dead, or presume that they haven't learned a few things."
On the mall outside WAMI's glass-front studio, passersby give the station high marks for innovation and enthusiasm, but a mixed report card for execution.
"I've flipped by it, but never stayed that long," says Herbert Levine, 78, a retired former CIA employee who lives in Dade County. "They don't have any good shows for [senior citizens]. I look at Bravo and A&E" on cable.
Miami Beach police captain Chuck Garabedian, however, was impressed by the station's handling of its first Miami Heat telecast. "With a new station, everybody's looking for negativism," Garabedian said. "I thought it was very positive."
Hyper-local programming like WAMI's will work better, says the Herald's Jackson, as TV stations acquire digital broadcasting technology that enables them to transmit multiple programs simultaneously a development that is several years from fruition. With many more TV channels filling the air, and the audience scattered among so many programs, a station that can command even 1 percent of the audience will be relatively attractive to advertisers seeking a "niche" audience, Jackson says.
"The face of TV is changing," he says. "If I had to guess, I'd say we're going to see a lot more WAMIs out there."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company