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'60 Minutes' spinoff for Bay Area takes time to go deep

In the spotlight: CBS 5's Anna Werner interviews Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, about agribusiness and the threats to organic-labeling standards, at an environmental conference in San Rafael.

Two years ago Don Hewitt, legendary co-founder of CBS's "60 Minutes," had a brainstorm. Spin off the most successful TV news program of all time and make it local.

None of the 17 CBS stations across the country "sparked to it," Mr. Hewitt said, except KPIX Channel 5. The station hired extra staff, flew Mr. Hewitt to San Francisco, and quickly developed a quarterly show heavy on in-depth, investigative reporting unlike anything on television in the region.

The show, "30 Minutes Bay Area," hews closely to its parent program in both style and substance. Reporters and producers spend months working on lengthy stories -- profiles, investigations and examinations of social policy. They mimic the long-form interviews and close-ups that have been the trademark of the national Sunday evening news program for 37 years.

"The success of '60 Minutes' rubbed off on the whole CBS network," Mr. Hewitt said in an interview. "The success of '30 Minutes,' I believe, will do the same thing for KPIX. It's called pride of ownership."

While CBS 5's managers say the Bay Area program has been successful in the ratings in its first year, they have no plans to air it more than once a season. So the winter edition of "30 Minutes," which airs this Sunday, Dec. 18, at 6:30, just before "60 Minutes," offers a rare opportunity to glimpse what local TV news might look like if stations invested the time and money to get beyond daily coverage of staples like car crashes and press conferences.

News that matters

"In the competition for local news, you have to find ways to distinguish yourself," said Jeff Harris, CBS 5's executive producer for special projects. "And the best way to do that is stories that make a strong local impact."

I thought the stations division was really enthusiastic about this, but after the success of San Francisco, I never heard word one. They don't return my phone calls.

-- Don Hewitt, creator
"30 Minutes Bay Area"

In its first year, "30 Minutes" has already done that. In its fourth show, last September, reporter Jeanette Pavini tenaciously pursued the Kafkaesque story of Wendy Nguyen, a San Francisco resident who lost her cell phone before going on vacation, and found herself with a $26,472.54 phone bill when she returned.

Her carrier, Cingular, refused to forgive the charges, saying it's the customer's responsibility to prevent fraud, not the company's. The piece so upset California State Sen. Jackie Speier that she proposed legislation instituting a "telecommunications bill of rights" that would have resolved Ms. Nguyen's problem. The legislation is stalled in the Legislature.

But the station isn't letting the issue die. It's planning a town-hall meeting in January on the unregulated cell phone industry with Sen. Speier and Geoff Brown, a member of the Public Utilities Commission. They also plan to invite industry representatives.

Mr. Hewitt, who turns 83 today, said the program in San Francisco is "awful close" to his original vision. He still hopes that other CBS stations will jump on the local-investigative-journalism bandwagon. But the network's stations division, which manages its owned-and-operated channels across the country, hasn't gotten behind his vision for a proliferation of local "60 Minutes" clones.

No enthusiasm for investigative reporting

"I thought the stations division was really enthusiastic about this, but after the success of San Francisco, I never heard word one," Mr. Hewitt said. "They don't return my phone calls."

A representative of the stations division in New York told Grade the News he would find out why. He never called back.

It's not hard to discern why the company is cool to the idea. Investigative journalism produced in Mr. Hewitt's signature "magazine" style is very labor-intensive -- and thus expensive -- to produce.

Everyone involved in "30 Minutes Bay Area" says that while it would be nice to make the show profitable, that's not what it's there for. But so far there are no plans to do what everyone on the show dreams of -- taking the show monthly or even weekly.

Is it economically feasible for local stations to put on a "60 Minutes"-like program every week?

"Economically feasible seems to be the byword these days," Mr. Hewitt said.

No one comes to us and says we have to get more naked poodles on the show. It's all about good journalism.

-- Craig Franklin, executive producer, "30 Minutes Bay Area"

Dan Rosenheim, CBS 5's news director, said the station "put extra money in our editorial budget to do this," but declined to specify how much. He said it's actually hard to calculate, since reporters from the daily news operation work on "30 Minutes" pieces, and the investigative staff air much of their work on the evening news. But the special projects team has grown, to about five from three before the launch of "30 Minutes."

Mr. Rosenheim said he's pleased with the show's artistic success, but is willing to give it time to become an economic success: "The show needs a title sponsor, probably. Some civic-minded organization that would be willing to be a major underwriter. Nobody's signed up yet."

Deborah Potter, executive director of Newslab.org, a nonprofit training center for television journalists based in Chevy Chase, Md., said there are few stations around the country that take the "magazine" approach. KARE in Minneapolis, and KING in Seattle, both NBC stations, are two exceptions. Of KING she said, "While it’s not designed to be a local version of '60 Minutes,' they are trying to get a harder edge."

"Whenever you're doing investigative reporting you're saying that the reporter and the photographer and the producer can’t turn around something else for tonight’s news, so it’s a real investment," she said. "Most of them are certainly making a fair amount of money in terms of profits, but they’re not all in the position to plow that back into the news product. These stations are mostly publicly held and have to return value to their stockholders."

For Craig Franklin, the executive producer of "30 Minutes," the ratings are an ever-present concern, but secondary to the content. The station's management respects the "wall" between business and news departments, he said.

"What you see is good healthy ratings in a slot that already gets good tune-in," Mr. Franklin said. "The good news is that people are not tuning us out during the half-hour. And no one comes to us and says we have to get more naked poodles on the show. It's all about good journalism."

Jumping ship

Both Mr. Rosenheim and Mr. Franklin are refugees from KRON Channel 4, where Mr. Rosenheim was news director for four years until 2000, and Mr. Franklin worked in various jobs for 27 years. In 1998 they together produced an ambitious two-year, 24-part series called "About Race," a collaboration with the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED-FM, following on President Clinton's call for a national conversation on race relations.

The stories discussed such topics as the genetic basis of race and the psychological roots of prejudice. Some ran as long as 13 minutes -- longer than any piece that had run on the evening news for years -- and won a prestigious Peabody award.

But the sale of KRON in 2000 and its loss of NBC affiliation in 2002 changed the station's priorities, Mr. Franklin said.

The contrast at CBS 5 couldn't be any clearer, he said: "At KRON, the motto was, 'What do you think this is, Nightline?' Here, they come up to me and tell me to be like '60 Minutes'!"

Mr. Franklin said the premise of "30 Minutes" is that viewers are smart and will reward quality with loyalty: "Why it makes sense is it does two things: It gives your audience something it deserves -- a magazine format, in depth, that's local. But it does something else: It energizes the whole newsroom. Ninety-nine percent of reporters and producers in the newsroom have stories they want to tell in more depth."

'It takes practice'

The program has tackled a wide range of local stories that didn't seem under-reported until CBS 5 looked more closely at them.

Face time: An editor puts the finishing touches on Anna Werner's story on organics, with a "60 Minutes"-style close-up of Ronnie Cummins.

This weekend's show focuses on a Marin County activist who is fighting for a federal Department of Peace, which was simultaneously proposed by Walter Cronkite and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who ran for president last year. For that story, Mr. Franklin was allowed to take a weeklong trip to New York, where he interviewed Mr. Cronkite, and to Washington, where he interviewed congressmen.

The station also hired a full-time investigative reporter, Anna Werner, from KHOU-TV in Houston. Her investigation of production defects at Firestone in 2000 led to the recall of 6.5 million tires. She won the first of two Peabodys for that story.

Ms. Werner said she felt blessed to be at a station that allowed her the time to do stories the right way.

She estimated that it takes 30 times more work to produce a six- to seven-minute "30 Minutes" piece than a routine 90- to 180-second daily story.

"I've been doing long interviews like this for 10 years," Ms. Werner said. "It takes practice. The more you do it, the better listener you become. The key is listening so you don't stick to a predetermined set of questions. TV's not just about capturing facts. It's about capturing moments."

The extra effort taken for "30 Minutes" was apparent on a daylong reporting trip Ms. Werner made to the North Bay in October, as a small part of her piece for "30 Minutes" that airs this Sunday. It delves into the little-known political battle over the definition of organic food.

At the annual Bioneers environmental conference in San Rafael, she spent more than an hour and a half in a private conference room, under elaborate lighting and in front of two video cameras, interviewing Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

As the interview wrapped up, Mr. Cummins wiped from his brow the sweat that had accumulated under the heat of the lights. "I have never seen a news organization go into such depth," he said. "Not even the networks do this."

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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