#TBT: Austin’s news chopper war

Each Thursday, we take a look at a TV/radio story from the American-Statesman archives.

Today, we head back in time to 1999, when KEYE and KXAN had dueling news choppers.

My chopper is better than your chopper

By Diane Holloway

American-Statesman staff

Aug. 26, 1999

When the gas pipeline exploded in Liberty Hill a few weeks ago, the sky suddenly looked like Vietnam — not because of the billowing smoke and fire but because of the buzzing helicopters.

KEYE pilot Mike Adrian (1999 American-Statesman file photo)
Former KEYE pilot Mike Adrian (1999 American-Statesman file photo)

Two of the choppers were owned by local TV stations; the rest were leased for the occasion by other local media, including the American-Statesman, as well as a couple of stations from out of town.

Everybody was hot on the trail of the arresting visuals, and the air was the best way to capture them. The sky was only slightly less crowded during the Lance Armstrong parade.

Floods, fires, tornadoes, train wrecks and other big-picture disasters are the meat-and-potatoes of helicopter photojournalism, and Central Texas is on the verge of a chopper war.

These broadcast buzzards are expensive, selling for well over $1 million without all the high-tech video gizmos. And that’s just the tip of the price tag. Monthly maintenance costs thousands of dollars, and so does the service of experienced pilots.

Is it worth it? The answer depends on whether you’re a “have” or a “have not.”

“Aerials give you an idea of perspective, what’s happening and where things are going,” said Jeff Godlis, news director of CBS’s KEYE Channel 42. “There’s no place in the viewing area that’s not within 15 minutes or so. We’re in the business of getting there and getting there fast, and a helicopter is the fastest way around.”

KEYE has been buzzing Central Texas since 1995, when the station’s local news debuted. Pilot Mike Adrian, who goes by Capt. Mike on the air, is at the controls of the flashy Enstrom 280C-Shark, dubbed Sky-Eye 42. This three-seater carries two cameras and Adrian, who doubles as pilot and reporter.

Late last month, KXAN Channel 36 answered the challenge with its bigger, more lavishly equipped Bell LongRanger 3, a bright-white six-seater emblazoned with five (count ’em five!) NBC peacocks and royal blue trim. Piloted by Shannon Bower, the chopper is loaded with five cameras and always carries at least one reporter/photographer to handle the TV duties.

“We think flying a helicopter is a full-time job,” Bower said. “To also be trying to think about something else, like talking and running the camera, is overload.”

Do we sense a bit of chopper competition here? You bet.

Although pilots for KEYE and KXAN refer to it as “friendly competition,” the stakes are high. And these hugely expensive birds have to be more than flashy promotional vehicles — although they certainly are that.

“Well, yeah, people see you,” Godlis said. “But we think we get our money’s worth out of it. We talk about it every budget year, and we choose to have it instead of another satellite ground truck.”

So, the “haves” are happy. Really happy. When a big story breaks, like the Liberty Hill explosion or a weather disaster, they can have live pictures on the air in minutes.

But the “have-nots” insist they’re not at a disadvantage. For a fee ranging from $190 an hour for a small “bubble” helicopter to $675 an hour for a chopper similar to KXAN’s, the have-nots can rent a chopper and beam live almost as quickly.

The only possible hindrance is availability, since there are only a handful of choppers for hire in Austin.

“We’ve found we’ve been more than adequately served by renting one when we need it,” said Patti C. Smith, general manager of ABC’s KVUE Channel 24. “It’s a piece of equipment that’s not absolutely necessary for us to do our job. Also, I think my best resources at this station are my people. People can do anything.”

Time Warner’s News 8 Austin, a 24-hour local news service set to begin later this month, has something that looks like a helicopter landing pad on its roof at 17th and Colorado streets. But general manager Brian Benschoter insists there’s no chopper.

“It’s sort of gee-whiz stuff, and that’s not our game,” Benschoter said. “I guess it would be cool to have one, but I can think of better things to do with those financial resources — more reporters on the street, more producers in the studio to give us better content.”

Fox’s KTBC Channel 7 has a lease agreement with a helicopter service that gives the station priority over other clients.

“At this point, we’re not looking to clutter up the airways any more than they already are,” said KTBC’s general manager Danny Baker. “If we need the service, like we did the other day when the pipe blew in Liberty Hill or last year’s floods, we can take off in 20 minutes. But buying one? It’s one of those extras that right now I don’t think is necessary.”

Note the phrase “right now.” It’s a dog-eat-dog world in local TV news, and some people believe it’s just a matter of time before Austin rush hour looks like Los Angeles rush hour — on the ground and in the air. First there was one chopper flying, now there are two. Can four or five be far behind?

KXAN pilot Shannon Bower (1999 American-Statesman file photo)
Former KXAN pilot Shannon Bower (1999 American-Statesman file photo)

“The first shot in the helicopter wars has been fired,” KXAN’s news director Bruce Whiteaker said with a chuckle soon after his shiny new bird began its daily morning traffic reports.

KEYE’s and KXAN’s helicopters both are essentially mini-studios, with cameras, microphones, live transmission capability, etc. Both have super-zoom cameras mounted on the outside that are gyro-stabilized for high-quality video.

KXAN’s zoom camera, as pilot Bower is quick to point out, is almost twice as powerful as KEYE’s, but the average viewer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

KXAN leaped into the chopper war primarily to cover morning traffic on “FirstCast.” The station’s research indicated that traffic information was at the top of viewers’ wants and needs in the morning.

“We felt like we could justify a chopper simply for covering traffic, but if you own it, you can fly it for other coverage reasons,” Bower said. “And if you own it, you have access to it all the time. We’re set up to be a first responder. Our goal is to be over the news as soon as possible.”

When a story breaks that cries out for aerial coverage, KEYE and KXAN take to the skies without a second thought. KEYE parks at a private hangar near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with Adrian nearby. KXAN is anchored at a hangar north of Austin with Bower and a reporter/photographer ready for action.

“It’s teamwork,” Bower said. “Having a skilled photographer is important, but having a pilot who understands what the camera is looking for is very important, too. It’s a very heavy load on one man.”

But KEYE’s Adrian insists double duty is no sweat. He has a split headset that allows him to talk to air traffic controllers and news producers at the station. He controls the remote camera with a box that sits on his leg.

With four years of pilot reporting, Adrian proudly points to some of the big stories he’s covered: the Amtrak train wreck near Round Rock, the Jarrell tornado and the explosion in Liberty Hill.

Adrian likes to fly his bird slightly below 1,000 feet “to take advantage of the view.” Bower prefers to hover at 1,500 to 2,000 feet, “so we can cover the story and not bother anyone.”

The pilots, who agree that aerial video offers a perspective that can’t be achieved from the ground, are friends and often chat with each other in the air.

“There’s certainly competition up there, but it’s friendly,” Adrian said. “I’m thrilled to see KXAN in the air because it’s kind of lonely up there. It makes it more fun to have somebody up in the sky with me.”

Although the have-not news directors deny it, the haves are convinced it’s just a matter of time before everybody’s flying.

“I’m amazed it’s taken four years for somebody else to get in the air,” Adrian said. “There are stories you really can’t properly cover any other way, and the pipeline explosion is a perfect example. The other guys do rent them on the big stories, but owning one is an advantage. The handwriting is on the wall.”

4 new reporters set to join KEYE news team

Adela Uchida
Adela Uchida

Look for four new faces to pop up soon on KEYE.

Adela Uchida starts this week as the station’s weekend news anchor, a spot vacated late last year when Deeda Payton left to serve as general manager of Community Impact’s Central Austin edition.

Uchida arrives from Houston, where she most recently worked for an all-news radio station. Prior to that, she co-anchored weekend newscasts for ABC-owned KTRK-TV.

“I’m sad about leaving Houston, but thrilled to be going to Austin,” Uchida told Houston media blogger Mike McGuff. “I have great faith in Rob Cartwright, the news director. He knows the direction he wants to go.”

In an email announcing Uchida’s hiring, Cartwright says she “has the reputation of being an aggressive reporter who digs deep for her stories.”

Nadia Galindo
Nadia Galindo

Reporter Nadia Galindo also debuts this week.

She last worked at KGBT-TV, the CBS station in Harlingen.

Another reporter, Juliette Dryer, will start later this month.

Dryer comes from Columbia, Mo., where she’s been a morning anchor and reporter.

The fourth new hire, David Iniga, will work as a sports reporter for Telemundo Austin, KEYE’s sister station.

He arrives here after a stint in Laredo, where he delivered sports reports for both English- and Spanish-language affiliates.

Juliette Dryer
Juliette Dryer

Morning anchor Hunter Ellis leaves KEYE

Meredith and Hunter Ellis poses at their home in Travis heights neighborhood. (Ricardo B. Brazziell photo)
Meredith and Hunter Ellis pose at their home in Travis Heights. (Ricardo B. Brazziell photo)

Hunter Ellis has left KEYE to focus full-time on documentaries.

Ellis, a former “Survivor” contestant and cable TV host who co-anchored the station’s morning show for about three years, signed off in late December.

“It is bittersweet, as I am very excited to return to the world of documentary television, but I will miss the viewers and the loyalty they showed us as we built the show from scratch,” Ellis wrote on Facebook. “It has been a true privilege to share all the news and events, good and bad, over the past few years. It has made me appreciate the town we live in. I am happy to say we will continue to call Austin home, I will just be on the road more, and will be destroying my alarm clock! A very sincere thank you to all our viewers, and to all those I worked with who made those early mornings easier and more fun. Time to kick the tires and light the fires … Many great adventures ahead!”

Reporter Alex Boyer has been filling in alongside Ericka Miller since Ellis departed.

2014 year in review: Busy year for local TV

Judy Maggio retired from KEYE in May.
Judy Maggio retired from KEYE in May.

It’s been a busy year on the TV beat.

We waved goodbye to well-known newscasters and watched as our friends and neighbors were featured on a host of nationally televised shows, among other things.

Here’s a look at some of the year’s biggest local TV stories.

Judy Maggio retires: After 33 years anchoring the news at both KVUE and, more recently, KEYE, Maggio retired in May.

Since leaving, Maggio has spent the past several months traveling, volunteering and enjoying live music around town.

Hema Mullur, a University of Texas graduate who most recently worked in Denver, was hired to take Maggio’s spot alongside Walt Maciborski on KEYE’s 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts.

Other TV departures: Several other familiar faces also left Austin stations in 2014, including KEYE weekend anchor Deeda Payton, KVUE morning anchor Jessica Vess, KXAN meteorologist Natalie Stoll and KVUE meteorologists Andrew Chung and Ilona McCauley.

LIN Media merger: Austin-based LIN Media, owner of about 50 TV stations nationwide, was gobbled up by Media General, a Virginia-based broadcaster, in a $1.6 billion merger finalized this month.

The deal gave Media General three Austin stations: NBC affiliate KXAN, CW affiliate KNVA and MyNetworkTV affiliate KBVO.

TV news ratings: KVUE and KXAN continue to be the stations to beat in the Nielsen ratings.

KVUE spent most of the year in first place mornings and at 10 p.m., while KXAN is the usual No. 1 at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Middays, a spot KVUE typically wins, went to KXAN during the most recent “sweeps” period.

Austin on TV: It’s no secret TV producers love Austin. That was especially evident in 2014, when “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Daily Show” and “Watch What Happens Live” all taped here.

Reality TV, meanwhile, continues to mine our city for talent, with locals popping up most recently on “The Real World” and “Undercover Boss.”

Lifestyle shows: Two Austin TV stations launched lifestyle shows this year.

The shows — KEYE’s “We Are Austin” and KXAN’s “Studio 512” — differ from traditional newscasts, in part, because local businesses can pay to be featured in segments.

Eye-opening tweet: Time Warner Cable News got some unwanted international attention after tweeting out a traffic update that included four images of nude men.

The cable news outlet quickly issued an apology and yanked down the tweet, but not before screengrabs started circulating online. Oops.

Did I miss anything? Let me know.

Next week, we’ll tackle radio.

KXAN, KVUE are top-rated stations in November

Jim Spencer, left, Shannon Wolfson, Robert Hadlock and Roger Wallace helm KXAN's top-rated 6 p.m. newscast. The station was also No. 1 middays and at 5 p.m.
Jim Spencer, left, Shannon Wolfson, Robert Hadlock and Roger Wallace helm KXAN’s top-rated 6 p.m. newscast. The station was also No. 1 middays and at 5 p.m.

The battle between KVUE and KXAN for TV ratings dominance continued in November, with both stations notching first-place wins.

ABC affiliate KVUE is the region’s top choice for news mornings and at 10 p.m., while NBC affiliate KXAN ranked No. 1 middays and at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., according to Nielsen data.

Stations in Austin and elsewhere across the country use ratings in November and three other “sweeps” months to set advertising rates.

Mornings have been an especially strong time period for all of Austin’s TV stations for several years now – and that trend continued in November. At 6 a.m., for example, newscasts airing on KEYE, KTBC, KVUE and KXAN combined to reach about 50 percent of Central Texas households watching TV at that hour.

No other local news time slot comes close to grabbing that much audience share in Austin.

KVUE once again came in first at 4:30 a.m., 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., but it was Fox-owned KTBC that reported some of the strongest year-over-year gains. Ratings for each installment of Fox 7’s five-and-a-half-hour morning show were up by double digits, including an 80 percent jump at 4:30 a.m., 63 percent at 5 a.m. and 47 percent at 6 a.m.

Fox 7 general manager Michael Lewis said the station’s current morning team, which has been in place for a little less than a year now, is clicking with viewers, prompting Central Texans to switch stations.

“They have tremendous chemistry and genuinely like each other,” Lewis said. “That comes through on the air.”

Stronger ratings for the morning news broadcast helped boost numbers for shows that air later in the day on Fox 7, Lewis said. That includes daytime talk shows and the station’s noon newscast, which doubled its audience year over year.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” he said. “When you’re successful in the morning, that sets the tone for the rest of the day.”

The ratings bump was almost enough to push Fox 7’s noon newscast into first place, but KXAN drew a slightly larger audience.

At 5 p.m. and again at 6 p.m., KXAN was a dominant No. 1, with an audience about as large as the second- and third-place stations combined.

In late news, Fox 7 took first place at 9 p.m., with KVUE in the lead at 10 p.m.

The 10 p.m. news race featured a new addition in November. With Fox 7 now competing in that time slot, viewers have a choice between English-language newscasts airing on four local broadcast stations.

It appears as if the increased competition might have hurt some Austin stations, with both KEYE and KVUE down year over year. KXAN, however, managed to increase its 10 p.m. audience by about 10 percent compared to November 2013.

Nielsen’s next sweeps period is in February.

November Nielsen ratings                                                  

Each ratings point equals 7,293 Central Texas households. The first number is ratings points, the second is share (the percentage of in-use TV sets tuned to a particular channel) and the third is total households.

4:30 a.m.

  • KVUE: 1.3 / 12.9 / 9,481
  • KTBC: .8 / 8 / 5,834
  • KXAN: .4 / 4 / 2,917
  • KEYE: .4 / 3.6 / 2,917

5 a.m.

  • KVUE: 2.2 / 16.9 / 16,045
  • KTBC: 1.3 / 9.8 / 9,481
  • KXAN: 1.2 / 9.1 / 8,752
  • KEYE: .5 / 3.8 / 3,647

6 a.m.

  • KVUE: 4.1 / 19.3 / 29,901
  • KXAN: 3 / 13.9 / 21,879
  • KTBC: 2.5 / 11.5 / 18,233
  • KEYE: 1 / 4.5 / 7,293

7 a.m.

  • KTBC: 2.6 / 10.3 / 18,962
  • KNVA: .5 / 2 / 3,647

8 a.m.

  • KTBC: 2.2 / 8.8 / 16,045

9 a.m.

  • KTBC: 1.8 / 7.4 / 13,127
  • KEYE: .8 / 3.6 / 5,834 (‘We Are Austin’)

11 a.m.

  • KVUE: 1.5 / 5.9 / 10,940


  • KXAN: 1.9 / 7.3 / 13,857
  • KTBC: 1.8 / 6.9 / 13,127

12:30 p.m.

  • KXAN: 1.1 / 4.3 / 8,022 (‘Studio 512’)

5 p.m.

  • KXAN: 5.7 / 15 / 41,570
  • KVUE: 3.6 / 9.2 / 26,255
  • KTBC: 2.2 / 5.4 / 16,045
  • KEYE: 1.5 / 3.9 / 10,940

6 p.m.

  • KXAN: 6.3 / 14.1 / 45,946
  • KVUE: 4.6 / 10 / 33,548
  • KEYE: 1.9 / 4.1 / 13,857

9 p.m.

  • KTBC: 2.7 / 5.5 / 19,691
  • KNVA: .8 / 1.6 / 5,834

10 p.m.

  • KVUE: 5.2 / 11.9 / 37,924
  • KXAN: 4.4 / 10.1 / 32,089
  • KEYE: 2.6 / 6.1 / 18,962
  • KTBC: 1.6 / 3.7 / 11,669


Weekend anchor Deeda Payton leaving KEYE

Deeda Payton
Deeda Payton

KEYE’s Deeda Payton will anchor her final weekend newscast Nov. 30.

Payton is leaving the station to become general manager of Community Impact’s Central Austin edition.

She announced the news on Facebook saying, in part, “The time has come to announce I’m retiring from TV News. I’ve been fortunate enough to interview some of the most fascinating people, work with the best in the biz & make lifelong friends, but it’s time for a new challenge. Thank you all for your support!”

Payton joined KEYE in January 2013 as co-anchor of the station’s morning newscast before shifting to weekends. Prior to arriving in Austin, she worked at the Fox station in Oklahoma City.

A replacement for Payton hasn’t been lined up yet, the station said Monday.

Betty White is still alive

Contrary to what you might’ve seen one Austin TV station Tweet earlier today, I’m happy to announce that “Golden Girls” star Betty White is, in fact, still alive.

No word yet on what prompted the station to send out the errant Tweet, which has since been deleted.

A Tweet from KEYE erroneously claimed that Betty White had died.
A Tweet from KEYE erroneously claimed that Betty White had died.


New news director set to join KEYE

Rob Cartwright
Rob Cartwright

A new boss will soon oversee the KEYE news team.

Rob Cartwright has been hired to serve as the CBS affiliate’s news director, the station announced today.

He takes the spot vacated this summer by Greg Turchetta, who headed back home to Florida to oversee communications for the Collier County School District.

Cartwright arrives in Austin after a three-year stint at WSYR, the ABC affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y.

Previous career stops have included Dallas, San Antonio and Washington, D.C. Combined, Cartwright has almost two decades in the TV news business, according to KEYE.

“I believe Rob’s proven track record and his ability to teach and lead will be a great advantage to KEYE’s news operation,” said Scott Livingston, vice president of news for Sinclair Broadcast Group, KEYE’s owner.

During his time in Syracuse, Cartwright is credited with helping WSYR become the city’s No. 1 news station.

“I am excited to be joining the talented team in Austin,” Cartwright said. “The area is growing quickly and KEYE is the place to turn for local news, weather and the in-depth reporting people in Central Texas need to know about.”

Cartwright is set to start Oct. 13, just two weeks before the all-important November ratings period.