“There’s no need to fear – Underdog is here”.
That’s the catchphrase of the 1960′s cartoon superhero Underdog! He was, sort of, the canine version of superman for the Labrador set. His heroics were often done to impress his love interest, Sweet Polly Purebred, who could never commit. Everyone loves the underdog, which is why the series ran for more than a decade. But an underdog is just as essential and relevant in the realm of morning news. And I learned this first hand.
When The KTLA Morning News first went on the air, we were indeed the underdog. In Los Angeles from 7-9AM, it was us verses the Goliaths of Good Morning America, Today and CBS This Morning. The LA Times called us “the little show that could”. Because we did. We faced off with the three major networks for a slice of the LA morning viewing audience. And on a daily basis, we felt the pressure. We couldn’t book the A-lists guests that the networks did. We didn’t have the million dollar network set, the expensive designer clothes that they wore. And early on, we didn’t have the ratings and we certainly didn’t have the mentality of a “winner”. That title went to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer who ruled morning news for a long time before we arrived on the scene. We were, clearly, the underdog. And we felt it every morning when we hit the air.
Along with feeling it, we kinda announced it. Barbara Beck, Carlos Amezcua, Mark Kriski and Sam Rubin would point out our shortcomings as compared with the network shows. They would read the latest memo from our News Director on the air dictating that we could no longer use courier services for deliveries because it was too gosh darn expensive. We could not provide a car service to deliver any guests to the studio. They’d even discuss when a celebrity would cancel their appearance on our show because they got a better booking from one of the networks in New York. These announcements, along with the occasional complaints about what they were getting paid as compared to Katie and Matt, clearly defined us in the viewers’ eyes as the underdog. Like the incredible success of The KTLA Morning News, taking on the role of the underdog was not something that we planned. It’s not something we discussed in a conference room and then brought to air. It just happened. It was another “happy accident”. And it was a key factor in propelling us to a solid number one against the networks.
Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker and author of bestseller The Tipping Point, recently wrote a book called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. In it, he looks at how we tend to exaggerate the strengths of the favorite (Today Show) and underestimate the strengths of the underdog (The KTLA Morning News). That’s something we certainly did on a regular basis. The one line he wrote that struck home with me is,
“Underdogs win more often than we think because their limitations force them to be creative. David couldn’t get close enough to Goliath to slay him with his sword, but he could be deadly from a distance – with his slingshot“.
That’s the concept that hit me like a ton of bricks because it’s exactly what we did – without realizing it at the time. We “slingshot” our path to success. We played up the strength we had that the nets didn’t: the personalities of our cast of characters; the local news that we could provide that the nets couldn’t touch; an aerial view of L.A. traffic; and most importantly, an acquired “we don’t give a shit attitude about what the networks are doing – we’re doing our own thing“.
We were “deadly from a distance” and didn’t even know it. We forged our own path rather than mimic what the networks were doing. And that’s the path the underdog takes to victory. Not only did we beat all three networks at their own game, but in the process, we invented a whole new way of sharing news and information in the morning. Former Tribune CEO John Reardon once was quoted as saying:
“The KTLA Morning News became the most copied format of any TV show in history. “
I don’t have the data to support that claim, but I’ll take John’s word for it. We were forced to be creative. And once we defined and perfected the show’s format, others copied our success with their own David & Goliath journeys.
It’s important to note here that there comes a time when you can no longer get away with playing the role of the underdog. Into our third or fourth year of success, things began to slip onto the air about how one KTLA Morning News host played golf with Tom Hanks the other day, or how another just bought a very expensive car. Or the real estate section of the LA Times announces one of the hosts just bought a big house in a posh neighborhood. The KTLA Morning News, once David, had now become Goliath. And I think there was some backlash from viewers who heard and saw things like this on the air and began to realize that we’re no longer the humble upstart they became fans of several years ago. Now we too were on a million dollar set and the hosts had become larger-than-life local celebrities, and we began to have more in common with those evil network shows that we had once distanced ourselves from. And again, this just happened. We didn’t discuss it. And perhaps we should have. In hindsight, I realize what a misstep that was – sharing too much about the fruits of our success with the viewers. Some viewers who once identified with Barbara, Carlos, Mark, Sam and the others, were now beginning to feel alienated from them because “those guys on TV have celebrity friends and expensive cars and I’m still the same simple CPA from Pacoima“. That sentence was never uttered by anyone, but I suspect that’s how some viewers felt.
I suspect the cast of Friends were in a similar boat during their last two seasons of their sitcom. That show had run its course but NBC was desperate to squeeze another two seasons out of them to prop up its primetime lineup. It was all over TV, the papers and the tabloids that each member of the cast was getting $1,000,000 an episode to stay with the show for an extra two season. Those last two seasons were not ratings barnstormers. Perhaps there was some view backlash against Monica, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey when they publicly became multi-millionaires.
I left KTLA while it was still number one. Two years after me, Barbara left, and then Carlos a few years after that. I don’t think “losing our innocence” played much of a factor in the softening of the ratings in the later years. Certainly Barbara’s exit took a toll on the ratings, as did Carlos’ and the show went through some major management changes. But even in its 22nd season, The KTLA Morning News is still #1 among the local shows, although no longer beating the networks.
The take-a-way from all of this is that adopting the role of the underdog is one strategy to attract viewers to the show. But the underdog role has a limited lifespan. The changing fortunes of time directly affect how viewers perceive you and the show. It’s a double-edged sword. Underdog may be saving the day one minute, but in the next, Sweet Polly Purebred may have moved on.