State of News

By Chase Erwin

1999 was a banner year for news coverage in Texas, and not just because a certain governor was running in a hotly contested circus - pardon, election. 1999 was also the year that two corporations went head-to-head in a competition for the state's viewing time. The general idea was that Texas was big enough for its own, statewide news operation. The two companies, however, had different ideas on how to approach their audience. And for a good chunk of time, neither company's audience included the Austin area! But as the years passed, time would tell that while one clear winner made it as the state's definitive news channel, neither company would succeed on its own terms.

The Texas Network, or TXN, an acronym produced to the irritation of Texas Instruments stockholders, humbly began operations in July 1998, thanks to a rumored $10 million cash investment by founder and owner James Leininger, a state politician famed for his vast right-wing stands. Leininger began hiring staff from newsrooms across the state, moving most of them to his San Antonio head office. Other staff were hired and located to news bureaus scattered strategically across the state. He then began to shop around the idea for a half hour, statewide newscast to nearly all the stations in Texas.

Meanwhile, Belo Corporation began setting up for its own statewide news operation. Based in Dallas, Belo was quickly becoming a miniature conglomerate, owning newspapers and TV stations in Texas and points eastward. Belo tossed aside the notion of creating a half-hour concept for other stations to syndicate, or even a newscast for its own stations--which at the time, were in Houston (KHOU), San Antonio (KENS), and the company headquarters in Dallas (WFAA). Their idea was much broader: a 24 hour cable news operation called Texas Cable News, or TXCN, that would greatly out-do TXN in terms of daily news coverage, as well as cover most of the state. Repeat, most of it. The most important market to the channel, the capital city, was unreachable: the Austin area had no Belo news operation. That would cause more than a few headaches for Belo when they tried to open TXCN to the Austin area later on.

As 1998 continued on, TXN was having a hard time. Though they had started scooping up affiliates to carry their half-hour product, which was to be called "The News of Texas," none of the affiliates were major network carriers: none of the CBS, ABC, or NBC stations were even considering the program. Fox stations were even hesitant to sign on. Indeed, the bulk of stations that agreed to air "News of Texas" were WB, UPN, and independent stations, most with no local news operation of their own. Despite that, construction started on the San Antonio home base's studio and weather center, and a fleet of outside broadcast trucks were getting their last coats of wax.

Construction also began on TXCN's home in Dallas, in a former warehouse for Belo, the Dallas Morning News, and WFAA. Offices were quickly fitted out, and Aguirre Corporation, the designers of ABC News headquarters in New York, was hired to design the interior of the building, the newsroom, and studios. Belo struck a deal with several low-end cable systems and the larger Comcast cable system to carry the channel starting on New Year's Day 1999. But Austin's Time Warner was holding out. The reason? They were going to start up their own cable news channel, specifically for the Austin metro area. Belo had lost the battle for Austin. For the time being, at least.

Fast forward now to January 1, 1999. TXCN signs on in a good portion of cable outlets in the state, except for of course, Austin. The channel was defined as a 'regional CNN,' mixing blocks of headlines and weather with in-depth specials and panel shows. TXN, meanwhile, was about two weeks away from launch. They still had not found an affiliate in Austin to carry the newscast. Their only real hope, KNVA, had ultimately decided to make their own half-hour newscast, produced by sister station KXAN. Still, they had managed to persuade one or two Austin reporters to move to San Antonio to help cover "The News of Texas."

The summer of 1999 was a time of change for local news in Austin. Time Warner announced a September 13 launch date for 'News 8 Austin,' a 24-hour channel specializing in news, weather, and traffic for the Austin area, with statewide headlines interspersed throughout each hour. This was a pretty clear attempt to prove to Belo that TXCN was not necessary, at least in Austin. But in June of that year, Belo got a foot in the door when it purchased KVUE from Gannett Corp., and wasted no time in adding the Austin station's reports into the fold of TXCN's coverage, despite not having a place for Austinites to watch the cable counterpart. TXN also finally made headway in Austin, when KNVA dropped their "5:30 Report." The WB station quickly signed a TXN contract, and "The News of Texas" finally came to Austin's screens.

The excitement was rather short-lived. Audiences weren't too thrilled with TXN's coverage, nor with their presentation style: a program title that looked like it was made with Microsoft WordArt, against graphics of blurred blues, reds, and purples, and an ominous theme song that seemed to end with the sound of a cannon shot.

Down in San Antonio, the TXN staff were seeing red. Leininger was insisting on frequent drug tests. A few were rumored to have been fired following the results of some of those tests, but a large amount of the staff left and had to be replaced with those who were willing to be watched over like a hawk. One of those who left in refusal of drug tests was Jim Moore, Austin bureau chief for TXN, who was famously quoted in the Austin Chronicle as saying "For all his career, Leininger has sought to remove government intrusion in our private lives. So why is it that he thinks it's okay to insert himself into the most private aspects of his employees' lives?"

As the new millennium rolled along, news was still evolving in the Austin area. KVUE, now fueled by Belo's vast fortune, refreshed their image with new logos, sets, and the beginnings of an HD equipment conversion. Belo itself won a huge victory, when Time Warner finally signed a ten year deal with TXCN to carry the channel on its systems in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. Along with the new availability of TXCN in these major areas came a lot of publicity. Billboards, radio ads, and constant reminders of TXCN's presence by the Belo stations led to a pretty successful ratings pull for the channel, even despite its location way down in the 300 tier, miles away from the local channels and conspicuously far from News 8 Austin.

This ultimately led to TXN haemorrhaging money at a rapid pace. Trying to redeem themselves and up-market their image, "The News of Texas" re-launched in the spring with lighter colors and new graphics. TXN hired Stephen Arnold Music to create a new music theme, "Texas Highway," a much welcomed change to the cannon-boom theme used prior. However, the changes were too late for most viewers across the state: a good number of stations dropped the program, including KNVA in Austin.

But TXN was not gone forever. They were to return, the following Monday in fact. "The News of Texas" made its way to KLRU, the PBS station in Austin. Elsewhere in the state, the program was finding similar fates with other PBS stations. While this was like an eleventh-hour reprieve for TXN, it was also its financial downfall. They no longer had the financial support of advertisers, meaning they had to plug in about 6 more minutes of material into the show for the PBS stations. As spring ended and summer 2000 started, TXN.com and NewsofTexas.com, the web counterparts to the network, were closed and the dozen-member web staff let go. By this point, TXN and Leininger had lost over $45 million in the news business. The final toll of the bell had rung. "The News of Texas" aired its final report on Monday, July 31, 2000, leaving the 13 remaining affiliates scrambling for something to fill the rest of the week's schedule (which in most cases was a simulcast of CNN).

So in terms of statewide news coverage, TXCN came out the winner. The next few years went along as such, until it came to light that TXCN was itself losing money rapidly, declining in advertising revenue and dips in audience figures. In December of 2004, Belo announced that it would be cutting 45 jobs at Texas Cable News, including all of the on-air talent, and cancelling all of its original programming.

On January 1, 2005, the sixth anniversary of the station's initial sign-on, TXCN switched to a less awe-inspiring format: whittling down the newscasts of the Belo stations in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin and airing the edited segments in hour-long blocks that repeat on a loop. The loops are replaced with new content at least three times a day, and are interspersed with in-vision continuity and weather forecasts by members of WFAA's staff.

TXCN has offered one unique capability in its new life. During Hurricane Katrina, TXCN dropped the tape loops in favor of simulcasting fellow Belo component WWL in New Orleans for over four straight days. When Hurrican Rita subsequently set its sights on Texas, TXCN again dropped the loops and simulcast KHOU's storm coverage from Houston.

So while no longer in its original glory, TXCN can officially be named the winner of the fight for statewide news coverage. TXN and The News of Texas quickly became a bare memory in the minds of many Texans, and its staff is now working elsewhere in the state. TXCN remains on air to this day, though without much fanfare and virtually no advertising. But how long will TXCN's life be in its present condition? Only time will tell.

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Article ©2008 Chase Erwin

Compilation ©2008 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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