News Corp. Gets Jiggy With Its Local TV News Empire

February 20

% When the Federal Communications Commission approved News Corp.’s bid to buy WWOR Channel 9 last July-giving a third arm, albeit a skinny one from Jersey, to Rupert Murdoch’s beastly New York Post –WNYW Fox 5 combo-insiders wondered how long it would be before the synergy-driven wackiness ensued inside New York’s biggest local news media empire.

Answer: not that long! WWOR and WNYW are both in full dynamic mode these days, with personnel shifts, on-air tweaks and, not surprisingly, more internal grumbling than you can wag a microphone at. There’s a new news director helming both newscasts, a Survivor contestant being mulled as a reporter, another new reporter defending an eyebrow-raising name change, and word that none other than Lachlan Murdoch is going to spend more time monitoring both stations, making sure all’s well with the family TV biz.

Of course, it’s not surprising that News Corp. would be in the mood to make aggressive changes to the news at WNYW and WWOR. Neither operation has been exactly a Peabody Award winner in recent years. What’s more, with two New York stations (WWOR is actually headquartered in Secaucus, N.J.) under its wing, the company can consolidate costs in certain areas.

But it’s curious how the stations are changing, particularly at WNYW Fox 5, the 10 p.m. granddaddy which has long been the news ratings leader at the hour. In recent years, the Fox 5 has been a serviceable if somewhat bland news hour, with predictable reporting on news, sports and weather, and occasional dollops of entertainment and celebrity reporting. Like many evening newscasts, its fortunes have tended to rise and fall with the success of the network’s prime-time lineup, in this case the Fox network.

Lately, however, the WNYW newscast has received a noticeable injection of caffeine. The 10 P.M. broadcast is a higher-energy product, with splashier graphics and reporters and anchors strutting around the set as if it were post time at an Off Track Betting parlor. There’s more flash to the presentation, the newer on-air hires are younger, and there’s emphasis on service-y, consumer-oriented news. WNYW has devoted considerable effort to its “Problem Solvers” series, in which reporters try to repair the troubles of everyday people.

At both WNYW and WWOR, the architect of this newsroom change is Neil Goldstein, a former WABC Channel 7 staffer who worked in Miami and Detroit, before returning to New York. (Mr. Goldstein was hired last July by WNYW and WWOR general manager Jim Clayton, who had been his boss at WJBK in Detroit.) Mr. Goldstein declined to comment for this story, but a spokesperson for Fox television stations, Ivey Van Allen, said the changes were not unusual, and designed to accommodate viewers with less time.

“As far as WNYW goes, they are doing whatever they need to grow audience,” said Ms. Van Allen, the vice president of media relations for Fox television stations. “They have changed the graphics and the pace is a little quicker, and that’s just to respect the viewers and their time.” As for WWOR, Ms. Van Allen said that “tweaking is going on at both stations.”

Neither WNYW nor WWOR is by any means the first newscast to try and get flashier and younger. But history has shown that New York has not been as intrigued by glossy, high-energy newscasts as other cities have been. The most recent New York–area newscast to receive a flashy facelift is WCBS-where the news director, Joel Cheatwood, is regarded as one of the godfathers of the flashy form-but the gloss has not paid dividends in viewers. WCBS continues to trail competitors WABC and WNBC by a wide margin in the overall news ratings.

As at WCBS, the changes at WNYW have been accompanied by some high-profile departures. Those to leave the station include Penny Crone, the roving reporter-at-large who is perhaps best known for her breathless stand-ups from Yankee Stadium, and Tom MacDonald, a veteran sports anchor who hosted a half-hour Sunday-night local sports show. (Others to leave include Fox 5 sports reporter Curt Menefee; another longtime WNYW reporter, Bob O’Brien, has been moved over to Jersey and WWOR.) To date, WNYW has kept both of its two signature anchors, John Roland and Ms. Scotto. Of the station’s anchors, Ms. Van Allen said: “It’s kind of the same thing as with all the things in the newscast – nothing specific to discuss right now, but its another thing that will be evolving over time.” Ms. Scotto and Mr. Roland did not return calls for comment.

But Ms. Crone, who is moving, ironically, to WCBS, was characteristically upbeat, saying of her colleagues at WNYW: “I got along great with them. I just felt like I needed a change.” Mr. MacDonald sounded disappointed yet philosophical about the end of his run, and the changes occurring at his old workplace.

“You get into this business and you’re around for a while, and it’s a young man’s business,” Mr. Macdonald said. “And they look at the talent and say, well, maybe we can bring somebody in with a fresher and more vibrant look and let them have a run at it.”

Nothing may have been more indicative of WNYW’s youth movement than the Feb. 19 New York Post report that Mr. Goldstein was considering Alicia Calaway, a Survivor contestant, as a potential health and fitness reporter. Mr. Goldstein told the Post that he had a “couple of great meetings” with Ms. Calaway, and the paper noted that WNYW reporter Dick Brennan let Ms. Calaway shadow him during the week.

Then there’s the matter of Julie Banderas, a new WNYW reporter, whose last name has been the subject of much buzzing in the station’s newsroom. Prior to coming aboard WNYW, Ms. Banderas went by the name Julie Bidwell during on-air stints in Harrisonburg, Va., and Wilkes-Barre, Penn., among other locations. That prompted speculation among WNYW staffers that Ms. Banderas changed her name from Bidwell to Banderas to have a more ethnic-sounding surname.

Ms. Banderas said that Banderas was a “family name,” and that her mother and grandmother are of Colombian heritage. She also said the decision to make the change was made “together” with the station’s management.

“Her mom is Latin American and she chose to use that name to reflect that heritage, as lots of people in news do with their preferred names,” said Ms. Van Allen, the Fox spokesperson. Gregg Willinger, Ms. Banderas’ agent, said: “It’s not that unusual in this business for people to have their names reflect their ethnic background, and Julie is Latina.”

But when asked if she was comfortable with her new on-air name, Ms. Banderas didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic. “All I have to say is that I’ve adjusted to it,” she said. “It’s an adjustment. It’s a change, I don’t necessarily want to comment as to how I feel about it, whether it’s a positive or a negative thing, I will say I have adjusted to it.”

Meanwhile, both WNYW and WWOR staffers may have to adjust to the presence of Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son. The News Corp. deputy chief operating officer-who has become a force at the also-under-renovation Post -Lachlan Murdoch has been spending more time at the WNYW headquarters, sources said, and intends to play a role in the oversight of both WNYW and WWOR, as well as other properties in the Fox station group.

“As deputy COO of the company, he plays an active role in the operations of all the company’s businesses, and an area where he has assumed oversight responsibilities is the station group,” said a News Corp. source. “So it’s only logical that he play a more active role in those two stations.” Mr. Murdoch declined comment.

Tonight on Fox 5, watch the ever-changing Fox 5 News at 10. [WNYW, 5, 10 p.m.]

February 21

@ So Craig Kilborn gets back to us this week to say that no, he’s not bummed about the fact that his network, CBS, keeps tapping his Daily Show successor, Jon Stewart, to host the Grammy Awards.

Mr. Kilborn crafted this bon mot in response to the Grammy host announcement:

“Until such time as they reinstate Milli Vanilli, I will have nothing to do with the Grammies. I believe I speak for Vanilli as well.”

Wakka-wakka-wakka! Tonight on the Late Late Show, Mr. Kilborn talks about Enron with the gals of Stuff magazine. [WCBS, 2, 12:30 p.m.]

February 22

* Hail Conqueror! Was Bill O’Reilly getting ahead of himself when, on an installation of The O’Reilly Factor the other night, he referred to the Fox News Channel as the most watched cable news network-in the world ?

Fox News is the audience king of American cable news, but they’re not about to conquer planet earth just…yet. CNN, with its substantial international presence, remains the best-known and carried American cable news network abroad, though that’s sure to slip with the cancellation of Greenfield at Large.

But it’s fair to say that Fox is not just a domestic truck-stop phenomenon. A Fox News spokesperson said that when the network de-scrambled its signal immediately following September 11, anyone worldwide with a satellite dish could pull down the Fox News Programming for free. Imagine-people can now watch Mr. O’Reilly sledgehammer Arthel Neville in Belgium, Norway and Japan.

Tonight on Fox, Mr. O’Reilly begins his newscast thusly: ” Bienvenue, chers amis, sur le Facteur O’Reilly . Vous vous appretez a rentrer dans une zone sans spin.!! ” [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

February 23

$ Tonight, Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Zzzzzz. No Picabo, no watchy. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

February 24

5 In honor of the impending marriage of David Gest and Liza Minelli, VH1 schedules a repeat airing of Where the Love Began, a.k.a. the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Celebration, whimsically produced by Mr. Gest, disturbingly unnerved by Ms. Minelli. [VH1, 20, 9 p.m.]

February 25

& Tonight on World News Now , new co-anchor Lizbeth Cho – who said she and her husband just took a midnight trip to Home Depot, playing to her new circadian clock-funnels a six-pack of Mountain Dew. [WABC, 7, 2:40 a.m.]

February 26

# Tonight on TNT: Hollywood Salutes Nicolas Cage: An American Cinematheque Tribute . Presumably, they’ll just gloss over Fire Birds, 8 MM, Vampire’s Kiss, Deadfall, Gone in Sixty Seconds, The Family Man, Con Air and Zandalee . Well, maybe not Con Air . [TNT, 3, 9 p.m.]