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KTVA sale signals end of an era in Alaska broadcast news

  • Author: John Tracy
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 3, 2020
  • Published August 3, 2020

Trent McNelly and John Tracy shake hands after the first live KTVA CBS 11 News broadcast from its new home in East Anchorage on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, after broadcasting for nearly 50 years from Spenard.

The recent news that GCI had sold the assets of KTVA to its rival Gray Television, owner of KTUU, came as a surprise, and marks the end of a rivalry between KTUU and KTVA that lasted more than 60 years. Pioneer broadcasters Augie Hiebert and Al Bramstedt Sr., brought Anchorage into the television age in the 1950s. They were fierce competitors and close friends.

Both stations have changed ownership several times. I arrived at KTUU in 1985 a few months before Maria Downey, who jumped ship from KIMO-TV, then the market leader. I came to introduce myself as “the guy who sits next to Maria.” As KTUU’s investment in news grew, it began to dominate the television news landscape leaving others to carve a slice of a shrinking advertising pie.

In time, local television succumbed to the same forces that changed the newspaper industry. The consolidation of local stations by large broadcast groups places a value on efficiency. Broadcast groups use formulas based on market size to determine staff size and news budgets. Stations are typically required to expand their local news programs while reducing staff.

Technology has made that easier. It is why local television news excels at breaking stories, such as natural disasters and plane crashes. And the coverage can be compelling. But It is far different to report on a developing story than to enterprise one on topics such as health care, education or the economy, which takes research, experience and time. Enterprise journalism is manpower intensive — and it’s expensive.

I stand in awe of today’s broadcast journalists, who must increasingly shoot and edit their own stories, write several versions for different newscasts, produce a version for the website, promote it on social media and get out the door for their live shot. And do it all in an eight-hour day. But the requirement to be a jack-of-all-trades prohibits one from becoming a master of any of them.

GCI’s entry into this environment was noble. It committed itself to reviving enterprise journalism and visual storytelling. It invested millions of dollars, building the first high-definition television station in Alaska.

GCI paid its people well and provided generous benefits. KTUU responded by investing in its own state-of-the-art studio, and put its talent under contract with salary increases. Whether GCI raised the standards of television journalism can be debated. The fact that it raised the standard of living for journalists at KTUU and KTVA cannot.

But the audience never materialized for KTVA. And the GCI model, in the end, was not sustainable without that support. The inevitable staff reductions resulted in the return to a more traditional local news model, with an emphasis on weather and crime. And when you follow the same model as the leading brand in the market, you are destined to remain in its shadow. The outcome is predictable.

But I believe GCI should be commended for trying to raise the bar. And KTUU should be commended by responding accordingly and not surrendering the high ground. Augie Hiebert and Al Bramstedt Sr. would be amazed at how far both stations have evolved technologically from their humble beginnings.

The 60-year rivalry is now over. The question of whether Anchorage can support two strong television stations has been answered. It is my hope that KTUU can absorb as many of the talented staff at KTVA as possible. And that the near monopoly now enjoyed by Gray Television will result in more resources for my former colleagues at KTUU and not less. Alaskans will be watching. Because they will now have little choice.

John Tracy is a former anchor and news director at KTUU-TV from 1985-2008. He was hired by GCI as a senior consultant to build up KTVA’s newsroom after its purchase in 2012, and had appeared on KTVA in recent years for the news opinion feature, “Reality Check with John Tracy.”

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