The executive producer is just three minutes into a debate with the most recognizable face in Colorado television, and she’s already pleading. It’s a serious but playful discussion about how things will go down a half hour from now, at 6 p.m., after Kyle Clark enters studio A, goes live on Next With Kyle Clark, and systematically attempts to burn old-guard television news to the ground.
“No way, Kyle,” the woman says.
“Kyyyle,” a second producer says.
For this installment, Next is hosting an audience of some of its newsmakers from the past couple of weeks. Though it may seem like a nonevent—a group of eight everyday people—at KUSA (Channel 9), a station that has made its name for six decades as the buttoned-down arbiter of TV news across the Rocky Mountain West, any variable in a live newscast for “Colorado’s News Leader” is a very big thing. And if there’s anything Clark believes in, it’s very big things.
Tonight, that includes a sixtysomething man named Roy. Roy had showed up a week earlier in a Next story about HOV lanes, looking like Kurt Cobain in archival footage from 1997 while not giving a good golly as he was ticketed for solo driving. Roy was, he explained back then, hankering for McDonald’s, citation be damned. Then, he was watching Next and saw his old self. Roy’s wife contacted Clark, and his son started a Twitter account and sent a present-day photo to Clark and his crew in which Roy was holding a McDonald’s fry container. Clark nicknamed him “Good Hair Roy” and invited the guy to the studio.
Now Roy’s waiting with his family in a room down the hall from Next’s windowless cave at 9News’ studio on Speer Boulevard. Clark wants Good Hair Roy to “take it to break” with a little send-off before a block of commercials.
“He might be nervous,” a producer says. There’s concern he could freeze on camera.
From his desk near the corner of the room, Clark looks up from a script he’s editing and smiles that charming anchor smile of his. He tilts his head slightly forward in an earnestly subtle way that suggests he’s about to drop some knowledge and…shrugs. He’ll roll with it.
“C’mon, Kyle, this could be serious,” one of the producers says.
Clark is assured, as always. “Let him do whatever he wants,” he says, and goes back to work.
Of course, Clark gets to do pretty much whatever he wants these days—including trying to reinvent the way stations deliver local news. That project, however, ends its first year (Next debuted on August 5, 2016) with mixed results. On an average weeknight, Clark gets 32,000 viewers—around half the number of followers he has on Twitter.
Over the past 12 months, the anchor has used his one-man, 30-minute platform in what might best be described as a provocatively thoughtful repudiation of the idea of what makes a local newscast. “These shows lose their value the second they’re over,” says Clark, 33, who still co-anchors 9News’ traditional 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. “The idea that people watch TV at an appointed time doesn’t reflect how they live, but that’s how we treat this business.” His show, he says, is niche viewing intended to appeal to a different, untapped viewer. “We’ve got to try something, you know?” he says.
Clark’s focus has been on playing down “commodity” news, the ambulance-chasing coverage that dominates local TV newscasts and has driven away millions of viewers nationwide in the past decade. The idea for Next came more than three years ago, following frequent newsroom conversations between Clark and 9News executive producer Linda Kotsaftis about their mutual disdain for the direction of local newscasts. According to the Pew Research Center, late news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates have lost 22 percent of their audiences since 2007, a decline that’s extended to 9News. “Basically, we had to do better,” says Kotsaftis, now Next’s executive producer.
When the show’s first Nielsen ratings came in this past winter, Next was down 39 percent from the traditional newscast it had replaced. In the months since, there’s been a slow uptick in viewers, a sign Clark has begun to make inroads. Seventy-five percent of his audience is new to the 6 p.m. broadcast, internal numbers show, and the majority of news-related emails sent to the station these days are Next-related.
That’s likely attributable to the nature of the show, which oftentimes has a snarky, irreverent approach to information dissemination. A regular segment on the much-maligned commuter rail line between Union Station and Denver International Airport asks, “Is the A Line working today?” Each night, Clark considers the “most Colorado thing” he saw that day (e.g., a baby announcement on top of Lookout Mountain), and on Fridays, he deploys a photojournalist to ask folks on the street if they have good news they want to share. In between, he’s chastised politicians, interviewed a seven-year-old boy about tortoise hibernation habits, broken a story about Longmont’s housing authority conducting warrantless searches of low-income properties, reported that a wildfire was the result of “human stupidity,” and read aloud the hate mail he’s received. One of his favorite missives is a greeting card with a handwritten “You suck” on the inside.
“Kyle knows exactly how far he can take things,” says Steve Carter, 9News’ president and general manager. “He’s not glib. He’s serious, but he’s not a downer-type personality. He realizes a broadcast doesn’t have to be a list of terrible things that happened that day. Kyle’s made news into a two-way street.”
Work often begins for Clark at 7:30 a.m. at home and ends sometime around 11 p.m. In between, he does interviews, tweets, makes phone calls, tweets, huddles with Next producers, tweets, does Facebook Live teasers, tweets, and edits every one of his scripts, sometimes while tweeting. The script thing is a byproduct of what Clark and his Next producers consider the show’s voice—the sardonic wit and plainspoken style that have been Clark staples and pushed his appeal to a cultlike following during his decade at the station. Or, as Carter puts it: “Only Kyle can do Kyle.”
Initially, Clark worried his bosses at Tegna, Inc.—the 46-station behemoth that owns 9News—would bury the show on 9News’ sister station, KTVD (Channel 20). Instead, the decision to replace one of 9News’ eight legacy newscasts showed Clark’s cachet within the station—and was a tacit admission that television-news viewers are going the way of the dinosaur.
Even with Next’s ratings decline, the show remains the local-news leader in the 6 p.m. slot, and Clark and 9News’ executives are sanguine about its future. “If you came to us before we launched and said we’re going to be down a percentage in the teens—but we’re going to have a new audience—I think everyone in the room would have been happy,” Clark says. “Let us build off this. Are we satisfied? No, but at the same time, we’re grateful the ratings aren’t worse.”
Part of what makes Next different is the show’s on-screen appearance. Gone are things like time and temperature icons. The set looks inviting: blue lighting, an enormous Lucite desk, and a giant screen in the background, framed by faux rectangular rocks. Before going live last year, Clark and his team studied national broadcasts, including ESPN’s one-man SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt and Charlie Rose’s PBS program. Rose’s in-depth interview style is a particular favorite of Clark’s and can be seen in extended conversations like the one Clark had with famed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin. “Imagine what most newsrooms would say if you admitted you were trying to emulate Charlie Rose,” Clark says. “It’d be like, ‘What kind of career sabotage are you contemplating?’ ”
One reason executives haven’t panicked about ratings is because of Next’s ability to go viral. Each evening, a producer uploads clips to Facebook and often posts the full show on YouTube. The tortoise kid got an offer to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and appeared another time with Clark to discuss beavers. One of Clark’s commentaries, on whether he was right to leave a note at a bar that challenged an Aurora truther, received tens of thousands of reactions on Facebook.
Before the show begins one Friday this past spring, Kotsaftis is at her desk in the Next cave when she pulls up a clip from a few weeks ago of a wife surprising her husband with a visit to watch Clark do the news. The man gives a little yelp when he sees the anchor and begins to dance. “Who acts like this when you’re told you’re going to spend 30 minutes watching a news show?” Kotsaftis says of the clip, which had 92,000 Facebook views. “This is exactly why we know we’re onto something.”
Clark is a master at privatizing his life, doling out a few interesting bits while keeping the best parts to himself, much like a popular athlete. His first job was at a radio station in Upstate New York—where he was born—when he was 16. He played tennis at a high school with roughly 50 people in his class and graduated from the journalism program at Ithaca College in 2005. He worked at his hometown TV station for two years before getting an offer, 10 years ago, to join 9News as a field reporter. “I thought I’d spend my entire life doing what I loved where I grew up,” he says. “I would have totally been content with that.”
If you happen to be one of his 60,300 Twitter followers, you know Clark is a prolific homebrewer. You know he has an adorable rescue dog. You know he purchases garish sports jackets from thrift stores. You know he dialed 311 when he spotted an overheating dog trapped in a locked vehicle, an incident that led to a Good Samaritan law being passed last year in Colorado. You know he hates viewer photographs of snow-covered patio furniture. “He’s managed to make a connection with the public that most journalists, for whatever reason, cannot or have not,” Carter says. “People feel like they know him, and they trust him.”
One morning this summer, Clark’s drinking coffee outside a cafe downtown and explaining the changing nature of the television-news business.
“The days of telling people, ‘Sit, here is your daily news,’ isn’t a sustainable experience for the majority of the public anymore,” he says. “They want a different type of interaction….”
At that moment, a middle-aged woman in yoga pants walks by and recognizes the newsman. “I just want to tell you I enjoy your show so much,” she says.
“Well, thank you for that,” Clark says.
“Your eyes are even bluer here than they are on TV.”
“Very kind, thank you.”
“I love your stories and the exploration of new territory. I like the in-depth stuff. Keep it up. Denver needs you.”
After the woman leaves, Clark gives an embarrassed chuckle. “You wouldn’t believe how far my mom had to come to do that.”
When the first round of Nielsen ratings this past November showed Next was down from 9News’ traditional 6 p.m. newscast, a KDVR (Channel 31) executive told the Denver Post: “I have to applaud any station or company in our industry that’s innovative and trying new things. I have to admit the huge decline at 6 p.m. would concern me.” A different anchor might have bristled at the dig, or shot back. Instead, game recognized game. “That was a fantastic quote,” Clark says. “I would have done the exact same thing. I would have told everyone this whole thing was a failure.”
For now, 9News is betting Clark’s show won’t be. On that evening this past spring—with Good Hair Roy in the house—Clark is editing a story during the show’s first 90-second break while the Next staff mines social media feeds for real-time tidbits. Still, most everyone in the production room is thinking about Roy. When the second break arrives seven minutes later, the camera pops to the man’s unanimated face. “C’mon, Roy,” Kotsaftis says. “Bring it home.”
“I’m Roy, and I’m the HOV driver, and we’ll talk to you next….”
“He did it!” another producer says.
“Atta boy, Roy!” Kotsaftis says.
The show’s a breezy 26 minutes and 27 seconds. Afterward, the crew foregoes its regular post-show critique to meet the audience. Folks line up to take photos at the desk with Clark. “Let’s get one big shot,” he says. “Did you all have a great time? I did.”
A few minutes later, everyone’s out of the studio. Clark heads back to the cave. It’s nearly 7 p.m., but there’s still more news to be made.