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First Airborne: KDFW Takes Ratings War to New Heights

By D Magazine |

When the National Association of Broadcasters met in Dallas several months ago, the most popular part of the convention for television news directors was the display of electronic gimmickry – minicams, microwave transmitters, and the like. One of the new devices on display, a helicopter-based transmitter capable of beaming live broadcasts up to 75 miles, was to become the weapon for yet another battle in the never-ending news ratings war in the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

The management at Channel 4, KDFW-TV, obviously tired of watching .number one-rated Channel 8 be first in everything, decided to become the first news department with its own air force. In July, KDFW introduced Sky 4, a Bell Jet Ranger III helicopter equipped for live and videotaped broadcast transmission. (Contrary to what the station implies in its promotional advertising, KDFW does not own the helicopter, but does have an exclusive access lease.)

Not surprisingly, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) and KXAS-TV (Channel 5) began looking into helicopter acquisitions before Sky 4 had made it far from its Reunion Plaza launching pad. “Helicopters are nothing new to us; we’ve been renting helicopters for news coverage for a long time,” says an almost-defensive Channel 8 news director Marty Haag, who has assigned a staff member to investigate the cost of leasing, or buying, one of the quarter-million dollar aircraft for the station.

Haag admits that the use of the helicopter for live remote broadcasts has more showbiz value than news merit. “Live shots from a helicopter,” says Haag, “are basically shtick.” Nevertheless, as soon as Sky 4 hit the air, its competitors followed quickly with multiple aerial camera shots throughout their Newscasts. Channel 8 even started using helicopter engine noise under the reporters’ voices in the aerial reports, just to make sure the audience knew the filming had been done from a helicopter.

But both Haag and Channel 4 news director Wayne Thomas defend the helicopter as having a valid news-gathering use: getting reporters to the scene of a news event faster than any other means. “Sky 4 has more than proved itself in the past few weeks,” boasts Thomas. “It’s been a real breakthrough in terms of the quick access to news stories it has given our reporters.”

But not all television reporters are thrilled with the new aerial twist to journalism. They say the tremendous cost involved in renting a Jet Ranger for a day – $500 is the going rate – would pay the salary of any two television reporters for a week. “It’s a tradeoff,” says one reporter. “You could hire half a dozen investigative reporters for what it costs to lease a helicopter. And which option gives your viewers more facts they need to know? How do you use a helicopter to investigate a bail bond scandal or to go over the books of the school district?”

That logic has obviously not prevailed at Channel 4, which rented a second helicopter – to shoot promotional tapes of the first helicopter.