The familiar faces are gone, along with the folksy pace. WTVR, the South's 

The Long Road Up

It's a tough call: Should the 5 p.m. news lead off with the highway expansion or the burned cat?

There are about a dozen people seated around the conference table pondering this. The mood is relaxed but alert. It's 9:15 a.m., the first news meeting of the day at WTVR-Channel 6.

"I love the burned-cat story," says Mark Neerman, news director since December. A burned cat featured in an earlier broadcast has found a home.

"The burned cat is good," agrees Eileen Smith, the assistant news director, who is standing at a whiteboard jotting down story titles.

Neerman thinks for a moment. "But the 288 story" — the long-awaited highway shortcut is finally breaking ground — "is going to affect a lot of people. It sounds dull, but it's important." Others nod agreement.

"Let's do it," Neerman says. "288 is at 6."

"So burned cat is at 6?" someone asks.

"No, 5," someone else says.

"Burned cat is at 5," Neerman muses. "That's good."

The rest of the news day is roughed out: The burned cat will lead at 5, followed by a package of stories built around President Bush's twin daughters getting cited in a bar for alcohol violations. Then there's an armed standoff with a group of kids holding off police in Idaho; this will be played big at 5:30.

Smith argues against sending a camera crew and a reporter to the 288 groundbreaking. "It's just going to be a shot of no highway," she points out.

Neerman overrules her. "The 288 story may not sound very exciting," he says. "But at the end of the day, it's important. Let's do it."

The meeting ends, and WTVR's journalists troop out to do battle.

Until recently, there wasn't much fighting going on between local TV news broadcasts. That has changed.

Armed with an utterly revamped staff, a cranked-up pace and an unabashed emphasis on stories that make people gasp, WTVR's news division is determined to make you watch.

But it's not easy to change viewers' habits. An awful lot of people like to see the same newscasters they've always watched. It can take 12 to 24 months before a station can see results from the sorts of changes News 6 has undertaken.

That time is almost up. This summer is the two-year mark of WTVR's reinvention. Finally, News 6 is starting to find out if all the effort has been worth it.

By the flash-and-slash standards of markets like Miami, WTVR's shift has been mild. But by Richmond standards, the jazzed-up WTVR News 6 has been a shock.

It's faster, more aggressive, far more professional than it used to be. Its reporters are quick on their feet. To a lot of people it looks like news shows in bigger markets.

For example, the station has sharply increased the number of stories in a broadcast. A typical News 6 newscast used to open with about six or seven stories in the first "block" of four or five minutes. Now that block typically will contain 12 or 13.

The station now makes lavish use of "stingers," short segments of animated graphics and music that set up stories and add tension and excitement. The "Breaking News" stinger kicks off with the sound of police sirens.

There have also been a host of small changes: The anchors now speak with the reporters on-camera, and occasionally wander around the set. There's more on-the-spot reporting of breaking news.

Neerman makes it clear he's guided by traditional news values like importance and public impact. He's decided to emphasize politics, for example; one recent broadcast featured four political stories. ("That's a lot of politics," acknowledges Smith, Neerman's right-hand woman. "But it's good politics.")

But along with its daily diet of straight news, the station has run some pieces that raised the ratings — while raising some Richmonders' eyebrows.

That's fine with Neerman, a soft-spoken man with a gently coaxing management style. He looks a bit like the actor Alan Cumming might look if someone had squeezed him too hard. He's in his first job as news director after stints as assistant director at stations in Miami and Portland, Ore.

"If they're not talking about you, they're not watching," he says. "And if they're not watching, you're dead."

Does he ever hear any criticism?

"People sometimes will say we're tabloid," Neerman acknowledges. "They see flash, and automatically they see tabloid. To that I say, What is tabloid? Is it news that people want to see, that they will talk about at work all day? Is it programs that look exciting, that are exciting? If that's tabloid, I'll take it."

During one sweeps period last year — before Neerman arrived — WTVR's 11 p.m. news ran a three-day series on "sex for sale," with hidden cameras capturing grainy images of Richmond-area paid escorts stripping off their clothes for an undercover WTVR employee. Even some current News 6 employees wince when reminded of that one.

Last month, the news heavily promoted an investigative piece that asked: Do blondes have more fun? A woman posed as a blonde and as a brunette to see how passersby handled various situations — she went to a bar, she pretended to have car trouble. ("That was a fun piece that examined a real issue," Neerman says cheerfully.)

More typically, one story on breast-augmentation surgeries on teen-agers was given big play; it opened the 5 p.m. news that day. "It was journalism by any measurement," Neerman says. "Is it something we can promo throughout the day, and something a lot of people will want to watch? Absolutely."

Neerman and the rest of the newsroom staff are awaiting the latest ratings, which are due any day. They're hopeful, though cautious. In the past few ratings periods, the station's overall ratings for its news shows have gone neck-and-neck with those of No. 2 WRIC, at times less than a percentage point apart. Every ratings point matters. One point up or down can mean a gain or loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual ad revenue.

"It feels like we have some momentum," Neerman says. "But who knows?"

What's happening at News 6 — or "News 6 Network," as it's currently being called, to include the station's radio station and its Web site — is a sign that the days of old-fashioned TV news may be ending in Richmond.

Other stations may not push as hard for attention as 6 does; the No. 1 station doesn't have to. But when they do, another part of the sleepy South will slip away from Richmond.

A major success for a harder-edged, faster-paced News 6 would turn Richmond's TV landscape upside down.

For years, WWBT-Channel 12, anchored by Gene Cox and Sabrina Squire, has been comfortably nestled at No. 1. WRIC-Channel 8 moved into the No. 2 slot, while WTVR seemed content to be lagging behind in third place.

For a long time, Channel 6's news was an easygoing operation, as comfortable and lazy as a hammock in summer. It was epitomized by longtime anchor Charles Fishburne's folksy, cheerful style. With its emphasis on its history — WTVR was the first station in the South, having started in 1953 — the station was better known for being old than for being good.

In 1997, its owner since 1966, Roy H. Park, sold WTVR to Raycom Media, a fast-growing Montgomery, Ala.-based company that owns about three dozen local TV stations around the country.

About two years later, Raycom tapped Mark Pimentel, the 42-year-old general manager of WAFF-TV in Huntsville, Ala., to turn WTVR's sagging ratings around. His trademark combination of brashness and professionalism had worked in Huntsville, where the station climbed from No. 3 to No. 1. It might work in Richmond.

Pimentel, a former news director, is built on a broad scale and carries himself heavily. His voice is low and full of quiet confidence. When he smiles he looks as though he had to remind himself to do it.

"When I first got to Richmond I turned on the TV and watched WTVR. And I was frankly appalled," Pimentel says. "I saw a news show that was old and tired. It was a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It didn't know what it was trying to be.

"When you mix a little bit of this color and a little bit of that color, you don't get something attractive — what you get is mud. And that's what News 6 was: mud. Old, tired mud."

Pimentel swept in and went to work. Out went Fishburne, the anchor since 1984, and a slew of other familiar faces, including the sports director, the morning team, the evening co-anchor and both weekend anchors. Pimentel then spent about $500,000 to spruce up the set and the newsroom. The weather report got a $1 million state-of-the-art Doppler radar system built in Goochland County. A satellite van was dubbed StormChaser 6 ("It's great," Neerman says. "It's crammed full of all this equipment, like a clown car").

Finally, after two years of remaking the staff and the set, all that effort seems to be paying off. The ratings are up a bit. More people seem to be interested in the station. The competition seems to be paying attention.

"I've never enjoyed my job more," says News 6 evening anchor Ray Collins. "We have a chance to really do something here. Why? Because nobody was watching Channel 6 before. We've got the chance to really upset the apple cart. The goal here is to be number one. … How are we doing? It's so hard to say, since we haven't got the ratings yet. We'll know something when we do."

Collins, 38, was recruited two years ago from Buffalo, N.Y., where he was anchor of the No. 1 morning show, to take Fishburne's place. Collins has the authoritative voice of a born anchor, and an anchor's ability to look better on-camera than off. He says he's been made welcome in Richmond.

"When I got here people would say, 'You replaced Charlie Fishburne, and I really liked him,'" he says. "They would say, 'I really liked him. I never watched him, but I liked him.'"

It's 2:30 p.m., and the afternoon news meeting has been postponed. Less than a block away from WTVR's Broad Street headquarters, an auto accident has left one car flipped over, its cab crushed. Some of the news staff gather among the other gawkers as rescue workers struggle to pull the car's driver out.

Inside the building, Neerman is told of the accident. "How bad?" he asks. Not too bad, reports producer Tom Callan: Astonishingly, no one appears hurt. But half of Broad Street is closed.

"That's a big deal, right?" Neerman says. It is indeed a big deal, at least until the street is open again.

Neerman decides to put the story on the air. Suddenly, the newsroom buzzes like a kicked-over hive. People start moving around the newsroom, figuring out what to do first.

"Who wants to do the story?" Neerman asks. Collins swiftly volunteers.

A photographer is sent to haul a camera to the scene of the accident, which is at an awkward distance. It's much too close to the station to use a satellite truck, but some in the newsroom suggest that it may be too far away for a camera cable to reach. Meanwhile, Callan is dispatched to call the police for details.

"Put Ray in the breaking-news center," Neerman says, referring to part of the newsroom set.

"Why?" grumbles one producer. "That's ridiculous. The accident is right outside the building! We should put him outside."

"It's breaking news," Neerman says. "This is one of those things that's not the biggest news in the world, but it's on our back door, and it's stopping traffic. So … ."

Collins gets in front of the breaking-news center and prepares to go on the air. "Who's got the script?" a producer asks.

"No script!" Neerman scolds. "Just a list. Just a list. A list of facts." It's one of Neerman's truisms that a reporter reading a script on the scene of a breaking story is far less exciting than a reporter who is ad-libbing. (Not long after he arrived in Richmond, Neerman walked up to a reporter just seconds before the cameras started rolling and yanked her script from her hand. The other journalists got the point.)

Yet another decision must be made: Should the station break into the afternoon soaps? After a quick huddle, Neerman decides to wait until a commercial break before putting Collins on the air.

"If it isn't life-threatening, we try not to interrupt the shows," he explains. "At one station I worked at, our weather guy kept interrupting 'Judge Judy' right when Judge Judy was ready to rule. Bad idea. People really want to see Judge Judy make her ruling."

A 10-minute countdown begins until the next break. Neerman stands in the doorway of his office, which faces the newsroom. He doesn't look thrilled.

"Already this is taking longer than I think is acceptable," he says quietly. "When I first came here, I saw a real opportunity because nobody is breaking in [with breaking-news stories]. In Miami, we got to the point where we could be on the air in like two minutes if a story broke, because all the stations were that fast. The competition was that intense."

At last it's time to go on the air. A camera is ready to roll — somehow, a cameraman has stretched a camera cable all the way down the street to the site of the accident.

"Now you'll hear the sirens," Neerman says happily. Sure enough, the breaking-news stinger sweeps across the newsroom's monitor screens, sirens whoop, dramatic music swoops, and there's Ray Collins reporting live from the News 6 Breaking News Center.

Over a live shot of the accident, Collins effortlessly ad-libs his report and quickly summarizes what seems to have happened, emphasizing that no one appears to have been hurt, and urges viewers to avoid the area for a while.

It becomes obvious Neerman was right: Somehow it makes more sense for Collins to be reporting from the newsroom than from the accident scene.

After maybe a minute, just like that, the piece is done. Collins unhooks his mike. The stage lights go out, and everybody troops into the conference room for the afternoon meeting.

It's 4:57 p.m., countdown time to the evening news. In the darkened control room, about a half-dozen people are seated at an array of monitors and control panels. On one monitor, reporter Tracy Sears is visible. She's petting her dog, Bogie, a shaggy mutt who will be a prop for her piece on a change in Richmond pet regulations.

Channel 12 plays silently on one monitor. Toward the back of the room sits the director, her hands playing over the control board, switching the on-camera images. "It's hot in here," she says. "Is anybody hot?" Her left leg jounces furiously.

WTVR, like all TV news, puts a lot of focus on the openings of its shows. "From a business standpoint, that's the most important thing we do," says Eileen Smith, the assistant news director. "We have literally 15 seconds to give them five reasons to watch our news. If you can get them hooked from the first story, you can probably keep them."

The 5 p.m. newscast will roll straight into the 5:30, which will slip seamlessly into the 6 p.m. news. Grabbing viewers at 5 could mean keeping them for a full 90 minutes.

It's 4:59. Time to roll. A voice sounds over the communications system. "Four. Three. Two. And on Ray."

With a thunderous peal of theme music, the News 6 logo sweeps across the screen.

"The news is right here, right now," Ray Collins tells the camera. And the first stinger of the night slams into view.

A few days later, the latest Nielsen ratings arrive. While 6, powered by carry-over audiences from "The Price Is Right," continues to dominate the noon news, the numbers aren't as good for the evening broadcasts.

After another full year of effort, expense and energy, the overall ratings for the 11 p.m. news haven't budged from the same time last year. They stand firm at a 5 rating (that is, 5 percent of the total number of people in the viewing area) and a 14 share (that is, 14 percent of those watching TV during that time slot).

And the figures for the 6 p.m. newscast have actually dropped, from last year's 7 rating and 16 share to a 6 rating and a 14 share in the most recent rankings.

WTVR's "demos," or demographic breakdown by age and sex, show signs of improvement, Pimentel says.

"There are some positive numbers and some that I would say are a disappointment," he continues, sounding deflated. "We would have liked to have seen more growth. … We have a lot of work to do. We haven't gotten to the promised land. Yet."

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