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Northwest Cable News signs off after 21 years

Dana Middleton was an anchor for Northwest Cable News during its earliest years in the mid 1990s. (Courtesy KING Broadcasting)
LISTEN: Northwest Cable News signs off after 21 years

When Northwest Cable News signs off at the end of an hour-long retrospective Friday night, a chapter of regional TV journalism will come to a close 21 years after it started.

Jim Rose, president and general manager of KING Broadcasting, a division of TEGNA, which oversees Northwest Cable News (NWCN), says that news consumption habits have changed everywhere since NWCN went on the air in 1995, and especially around Portland and Seattle.

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“I think the adoption of new technology just happens at a much more rapid-fire pace here than other parts of the country,” Rose said, pointing to smartphones and tablets and other devices that people are turning to for regional and other news. This means the NWCN model no longer made financial sense for TEGNA.

During its two-plus decades, NWCN helped launch the local careers of such well-known Northwest broadcasters as Shannon O’Donnell, Michael King, Meg Coyle and Cam Johnson, and it was the place where former Northwest Afternoon host Dana Middleton reinvented herself as a news anchor.

On the direct impact side, Jim Rose says that a total of about 25 employees are affected by the shutdown, but that more than half of those have found other jobs within the company here in Seattle or elsewhere with TEGNA.

The 24-hour regional news channel debuted on cable TV systems in much of Washington, Oregon and Idaho – essentially, the area historically known as “Oregon Country” — in December 1995. But it wasn’t until May 2, 1996 that viewers really started paying attention.

“There was an earthquake, and that was the first story to really put us on the map,” said Elliott Wiser, who served as NWCN’s first news director.

The 5.3 magnitude quake was centered near Duvall and was the biggest to hit the Northwest in years. It came during primetime on a Thursday night, Wiser says, and KING didn’t want to preempt a new episode of “Seinfeld” (the one-hour special episode called “The Bottle Deposit”).

“It was during ratings period, so KING-TV did earthquake coverage until ‘Seinfeld’ [came on], and then for the first time ever, said [to their viewers] ‘If you want continuous [earthquake] coverage, go to Northwest Cable News.’ So that was pretty big for us,” Elliott said.

It was pretty big for a lot of people, especially those unlucky souls who were in the Kingdome when the shaking began, watching the Mariners battle the Cleveland Indians. Officials postponed the game a third of the way into the seventh inning, with the Indians leading Seattle 6-4. (SPOILER ALERT: They finished the game the next night and Cleveland won.)

NWCN got perhaps an even bigger boost later that year when a snowstorm struck the Northwest on the day after Christmas.

“None of the broadcast stations was doing anything because it was right after Christmas,” Wiser said. “We had anticipated the snowstorm, so we had put [our staff] people up in hotels, and we went wall-to-wall for two straight days and did some amazing ratings, and that’s where Northwest Cable News really got noticed.”

Wiser says the shutdown of NWCN doesn’t come as a surprise in this day and age.

“I think the closing of Northwest Cable News is a signal that the digital era is in full bloom, [and] how rapid things change in media,” Wiser said. “And while it’s sad, it really is endemic of what’s happening in media consumption and [how] what worked, [and] what was important 20 years ago, becomes antiquated in 2016-2017.”

Northwest Cable News was a project of KING Broadcasting, a company that traced its roots to the 1940s, when Dorothy Bullitt purchased first a radio station, and then Seattle’s first TV station, KRSC, which she renamed KING. Under Bullitt’s leadership (and with help from a core of skilled executives), KING grew to include TV stations in other cities, including KGW in Portland, KREM in Spokane and KTVB in Boise.

Dorothy Bullitt passed away in 1989, and her daughters sold KING Broadcasting to then-burgeoning media company Providence Journal in 1991. It was executives of that Rhode Island-based newspaper, broadcasting and cable TV company who were the first to see the potential in creating a regional news channel based in Seattle and then do something about it.

“We did a lot of research on that,” said Tryg Myhren, who was president and COO of Providence Journal when they acquired KING. Other regional 24-hours news channels had been launched in Washington DC, New England and on Long Island, and Myhren says research they commissioned showed that the Northwest was a logical place to try something similar. KING negotiated with local cable operators and were granted the Channel 2 spot on most systems in the Northwest for what became the 24-hour news service.

Craig Marrs was hired to be the first general manager of NWCN. Before that, he worked for the firm that did the Northwest research for Tryg Myhren and Providence Journal.

Their findings showed that “this part of the country was unique in many respects in having a sense of regionalism and shared common interests, and if not interests, certainly a common belief system,” Marrs said.

“I think there was a very strong belief that the regional nature of our operation would actually be meaningful to viewers, and sure enough, it turned out to be true. [The coverage] always was more Seattle-centric, but it had good doses of news content from all over the Northwest,” Marrs said.

Former news director Elliot Wiser was never fully convinced that the viewing audience across the Northwest was truly cohesive enough to support a regional news channel.

“I think the flaw in Northwest Cable News from the beginning was the assumption that someone in Boise would want to see news from Portland,” Wiser said, or that viewers in Bellingham would care about news from Spokane, and so on.

Regardless, 20-plus years is a pretty good run, and Craig Marrs says that he and his NWCN colleagues were well aware of the legacy of what the Bullitt family had meant to broadcasting innovation and public service in the Northwest.

“Their DNA was in the air that we breathed in that building,” Marrs said. “The Bullitt family had a true heart of a servant. They served the public in a way that was very, very strong and very committed to journalism in that area, and we knew as we came into that magnificent building and that lobby and rode the elevator up to the fifth floor, that we were going through a part of the history of Northwest television with the Bullitt family very much in our mind,” Marrs said.

In this spirit, Marrs says that Northwest Cable News, which was the first all-digital TV newsgathering operation in the country, could even be considered to have been the “new media” of its era.

“The concept of ‘new media’ at the time was really a descriptor for things like Northwest Cable News, where distribution of 24-hour on-demand news and weather was always at the cable dial, so you always had a chance to have something beyond the national [and] international parts of CNN at the time,” Marrs said.

Marrs also says that the service that NWCN offered, something he describes (and even recites) as a “mantra” – “We were there whenever you wanted us, wherever you needed us, whenever you needed us, and we would be on the air with stories that we thought made sense to you” – might have actually had a hand in creating the modern news consumption habits that ultimately led to NWCN’s demise.

“That success ended up, perhaps, creating on some level the industry of putting news on-demand always on the air,” Marrs said. “All the way into the days of having immediacy in your hand [so that now] you can walk down the street watching what you want to watch [on your phone].”

Meanwhile, on old-fashioned TV screens around the Northwest, Marrs, Wiser, Myrhen and Rose all basically concur that local news programming, looking very much what NWCN pioneered here, has expanded over the past 20 years to fill blocks of the morning, midday and afternoon hours on nearly every station. That is, NWCN influenced the creation of local competing programs that likely contributed to its ultimate regional obsolescence.

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Marrs says that while he’s sad about NWCN signing off, he has fond memories of what the channel accomplished in the years he was there.

“We had a very talented team of people,” Marrs said. “They pulled together heroically and with very little support and very few staff members to help make it go.”

Elliott Wiser says the sign-off is part of how the news business continues to change, and yet how it remains just that – a business.

“I think it’s very difficult nowadays for 24-hour local news channels to prosper because of the movement to digital,” Wiser said. “It’s expensive to run, and TEGNA’s like every other broadcast company. They’re looking at the bottom line.”

“I can talk to my Alexa and say ‘give me the headlines,’ [and this] makes it much more difficult to legitimize spending millions of dollars a year on a 24-hour local news channel,” Wiser said.

There’s one further interpretation beyond the simple shift to digital that’s worth exploring, particularly in light of the fact that similar 24-hour regional news channels remain in operation in New England, New York, and Florida.

Has the Pacific Northwest simply lost some of its regional cohesiveness? Have Boise, Portland and Spokane “matured” as communities, so much so that they no longer need (or, advertisers won’t support) a Seattle-centric news channel? Or, perhaps Elliott Wiser was onto something 20 years ago when he doubted that viewers around the Northwest really cared about news from outside their immediate area.

Tryg Myhren, who’s retired from the media industry but still active in other business and community pursuits where he lives in Colorado, says that this “de-regionalization” just might be the case.

“I could just see some newly-minted Microsoft executive sitting there [in Seattle] thinking, ‘Why the hell do I have to watch this program about Boise?’” Myrhen said, with a hearty chuckle.

Editor’s Note: The hour-long retrospective of Northwest Cable News’ 21-year history will air at 6 p.m. Pacific Time this Friday, January 6. Jim Rose of KING Broadcasting says that the company has not yet decided if the special will be archived and available to watch online as well.

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