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KDKA's new director to fine-tune newscasts

Thursday, December 07, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Joe Coscia, KDKA's latest news director, wants to motivate newsroom employees by cheering them on and leading.

He insists on seeing weather guy Larry Richert dressed professionally in a suit, not in casual attire.

And he's most interested in drawing viewers to KDKA's newscast by offering compelling content.

Joe Coscia is a breath of fresh air at Gateway Center.

After five weeks on the job, a candid Coscia sat down Tuesday to discuss his vision for KDKA, changes he's considering and the importance of making his station's newscasts stand apart.

It was my second "welcome to the market" lunch with Coscia in three years. When I worked as TV critic in Albany, N.Y., Coscia was brought in to be news director of the CBS affiliate there. Like KDKA, WRGB was a longtime heritage station whose ratings had dropped as the market became more competitive. Coscia brought stability to WRGB's ratings. Now he's looking to improve KDKA's ratings.

He compared KDKA's news operation to a classic Volvo.

"It's not broke," he said. "It just needs a tune-up. Then we'll get back out there and drive another million miles."

To that end, Coscia emphasized a need for regularity and consistency for KDKA's franchise segments, business news, consumer news, and features. And he realizes railing against contests on other stations won't do much good.

"My objective here is to be consistent with content inside and outside of sweeps periods," Coscia said. "So when rating periods do come into play, it will lessen contests' impact."

Coscia recognizes KDKA has valuable players already, but it's how they're deployed that needs tinkering. For instance, there's little consistency to when Dave Crawley's superb feature stories air. Business reporter Bill Flanagan pops up irregularly.

"Franchises don't mean fluff, nor does it mean features, it's an umbrella term for a segment of the program which has regularity, whether it's Bill Flanagan's money reports or Jon Delano's political analysis or Wayne Van Dine's segments," Coscia said. "That's what differentiates the product [from the competition]. A lot of those elements are already in place, whether they are showcased or promoted effectively is something we will look at. I think there has been some inconsistency in terms of the placement of the product and the promotion of the product."

Coscia said Flanagan will have a regular presence at a time yet-to-be-determined during the 5 to 7 p.m. news block beginning in January. But don't look for the 5 p.m. broadcast to return to the newsroom set anytime soon. Coscia said that set was vacated due to problems with lighting.

Despite his belief in the "Hometown Advantage" philosophy -- being "hyper-local, telling stories from a perspective no one else can" -- Coscia said some of the people he hires in the future may not be from this area.

"You really have to look at the openings that will exist in the future and keep the possibilities open and hire the best people for the jobs," Coscia said. "It's nice to have someone with local roots, that's always something you look for, whether you're in Pittsburgh or Albany or Paducah. But I can't say that's going to be the mandate in the future."

Coscia sees opportunity for getting a larger audience for KDKA's third-place morning show. CBS has the lowest-rated of the three national morning shows, but in Albany Coscia's CBS station had the No. 1 morning show, complete with a host, anchor, weathercaster and a reporter live in the field. The broadcast featured on-set interviews every day, something he said may become part of KDKA's morning news.

"You're going to build your news ratings and loyalty out of your morning newscast," he said. "More and more people are shifting their tune-in habits to television in the morning. It has, in most cases, replaced radio. It's radio on TV."

Coscia wants to encourage "radioesque camaraderie" among KDKA's morning news anchors, which he described as nothing buffoonish, just impromptu chatter from the anchors. And he wants to give them more to do.

Coscia is a director-at-large for the Radio-Television News Director's Association. In addition to working as news director at stations in Albany and Providence, R.I., he has worked at WNBC, WCBS and WABC in New York. He was a producer for ABC's short-lived newsmagazine "Day One" and has some familiarity with Pittsburgh's WTAE from his stint as ABC's director of affiliate relations.

Despite an upbeat, forward-thinking attitude for breathing new life into KDKA, Coscia comes with his share of baggage.

Earlier this year he allowed WRGB to air a six-part report on the microchip-fabrication industry and what it could mean for Albany's economy. While the report was already in production, Coscia allowed a nonprofit group in support of chip manufacturing to pay $4,000 to underwrite the series, enabling a reporter working on the project to travel to Austin, Texas. Coscia said the nonprofit had no editorial control, but he admits now it was a mistake.

"It in no way compromised the integrity of the report. ... The question here is whether or not we, in journalistic terms, violated the code of ethics," Coscia said. "In retrospect, the code of ethics says [to avoid] 'any real or perceived conflict of interest.' We probably should not have done it."

Coscia said the whole incident was part of the "growing and almost insurmountable pressure of budget restraints on local television news operations." There's no denying local television stations (and newspapers alike) are for-profit ventures, but where Coscia draws the line between news and advertising is a few feet away from where it's traditionally been.

He has no problem with commercialism creeping into weather or sports (as in KDKA's anchors reading Dick's trivia questions), but maintains "the news portion of our newscasts remains sacrosanct and free from commercial intervention."

Yet in Albany and Providence, Coscia unveiled a "Breakfast with Your Neighbors" segment on the morning news. In Albany it was sponsored by Dunkin Donuts and the company's logo appeared on screen on coffee mugs used by the station's reporter and the "neighbors" who were interviewed about local issues.

To me, that sort of product placement teeters on the slippery slope of commercialism, but Coscia defended it.

"You have to climb that slippery slope with some real studded cleats," he said. "You have to orchestrate it so you do draw the line between commercialism and sponsorship and product."

TRASHY "TITANS" TRASHED: Daily Variety reports NBC won't order additional episodes of the new Aaron Spelling soap "Titans," canceling the show after its first 13 episodes. The move came after "Titans" moved to 8 p.m. Monday this week and earned dismal ratings.

NBC's "The Michael Richards Show" also is expected to get the ax soon, Variety reported.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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