News at 11: KNTV tackles host of obstacles

NBC’s San Jose investment pays off as viewership and news awards continue to grow

BY DAVID SPEAKMAN

Last year a tectonic shift reshaped the Bay Area’s television landscape when NBC abandoned San Francisco and started broadcasting from KNTV Channel 11 in San Jose. Despite controversy, KNTV thrives and its audience has adapted to NBC’s new local home, station management says.

Media critics and some San Francisco elite lambasted the move, saying the TV network was committing a cultural crime moving to a station that was little known outside of Santa Clara County and whose broadcast signal didn’t reach San Francisco or North Bay counties.

“Obviously there was a set of challenges, especially in a startup situation like this,” says Jim Cuneen, CEO of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve had a certain amount of layers in the Bay Area where the media was in San Francisco,” Cuneen says. “Now with NBC and Knight-Ridder Inc. here [in San Jose], the local media landscape is more diversified.”

Adding to its challenges, NBC’s switch happened at the depth of the dot-com recession when local TV advertising rates sunk to their lowest levels in years.

“You have to look at the big picture,” says Linda Sullivan, president and general manager of KNTV. “In any startup there are issues you’ve got to address. For us it was the signal.”

KNTV boosted it’s transmission power from 79 kilowatts to 182 kilowatts, the maximum allowed by the federal government. KNTV also had to convince local cable systems and direct broadcast satellite TV systems to carry its signal, which combined, gives the station access to 88 percent of Bay Area households.

Still, the more-powerful over-the-air signal fails to reach sections of San Francisco and the North Bay. Sullivan points out that some South Bay residents couldn’t tune in NBC from TV antennas when it was broadcasted from San Francisco.

“No station has 100 percent over-the-air coverage because of the mountainous terrain,” Sullivan says. “But increasing the quality of our signal is still a priority and we hope to be able to relocate our transmitter closer to the bay.”

Another challenge was expanding news coverage to the entire Bay Area without losing its established Santa Clara County audience, she says

“The South Bay is our priority, but at the same time we are licensed to serve a larger area,” Sullivan says.

Known for his one-liners, Cuneen swipes at San Francisco critics who still call for NBC to return.

“San Francisco is one our most important suburbs,” he jokes. “As the second largest city, it still has a lot to offer the Bay Area.”

But for KNTV’s sales staff, the station’s underdog image was no laughing matter.

“Our sales department has been through the wringer,” Sullivan says. “A little over a year ago, they were being told, ‘It’s never going to happen. Give it up.’ And yet in 2002, in one month, we billed what the station did in the whole year in 2001. Again, that gets back to the entrepreneurial spirit of the people here.”

Sullivan cites the capital investment NBC has made in a new bureau in San Francisco and plans to build a new building in San Jose.

“We’ve tripled the number of live trucks, we’ve increased the amount and quality of equipment both in the news and engineering,” Sullivan says.

On April 4 the Associated Press Television Radio Association of California and Nevada (APTRA) will present the station with seven news coverage awards — more than any other Bay Area TV station.