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Live at Five: WFAA tries to pep up its newscast with in-studio interviews, roaming anchors

Peeps show: WFAA8's John McCaa and Gloria Campos welcomed three baby hawks to Tuesday's 5 p.m. newscast. Photos: Ed Bark

WFAA8 lately has turned to an old, oft-reliable TV staple -- the homey, in-studio interview -- to help boost ratings for its weekday 5 p.m. newscast.

Viewers couldn't help but notice a marked difference in Tuesday's program. Midway through it, anchors John McCaa and Gloria Campos moved away from their Victory Park anchor desk to the studio's windowed area. Awaiting them were three peeping baby red-tail hawks and Kathy Rogers of the Hutchins, TX-based Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc.

There indeed was a news angle. The federally protected hatchlings had been existing atop a cracked light pole at South Lake Carroll's Dragon Stadium. The unsafe pole had to come down, but workers first rescued the three hawks, two girls and a boy.

Rogers had some extra tidbits during her live in-studio interview. The birds are fed filet of rat and won't be able to fend for themselves or be freed for four to six months. Keeping them healthy until then will cost about $3,000, all of it donated, she said. And when they finally fly away, "it's like a sunrise in your heart."

Campos talks to 14-year-old comic book writer Jake Tinsley.

Monday's 5 p.m. newscast had two live interviews, one of which didn't go too well.

Early on, Campos hooked up live with 14-year-old comic book writer Jake Tinsley. His latest effort, Amber Hagerman Deserves Justice, is tied to Amber Hagerman, whose abduction and murder in 1996 led to the national "Amber Alert" system. The nine-year-old's murderer has never been found, but there are ongoing efforts to solve the 13-year-old "cold case."

Tinsley fidgeted with his earpiece, had trouble hearing Campos and was clearly nervous about being on live TV. You win some, you lose some. Both parties seemed glad for it to be over.

McCaa later strayed from the anchor desk to meet with seven SMU engineering students whose senior year project was designing better modes of transportation for the disabled. On display were a wheelchair with what amounted to an extra arm and a very impressive looking "all-terrain hand cycle."

So is any of this working? Coincidentally or not, WFAA8's 5 p.m. newscasts have finished first for the past four weekdays in both total viewers and 25-to-54-year-olds, the main advertiser target audience for news programming. In the one-time-only March ratings "sweeps," WFAA8 was outdrawn at 5 p.m. for the first time in at least 22 years. And the station had been slumping for several months after winning the November sweeps in both ratings measurements.

The in-studio interviews run the risk of looking like a morning TV incursion into what had been a straight-ahead, standard newscast. Some viewers also might see them as a little small-timey for the country's No. 5 TV market. And it might be tough to come up with a new and reasonably newsworthy show-and-tell segment each and every day. At all costs, the anchors have to stay away from interviewing people who merely have something to sell. There's enough of that already on WFAA8's Good Morning Texas.

So far, so good, though. Early evening local newscasts increasingly are being perceived as expendable in many TV markets. The audience is older -- particularly in a central time zone such as D-FW -- and the growth curve is anemic at best when many potential viewers are still at work.

WFAA8's efforts to "open up" the 5 p.m. show look fairly promising in these early stages. At least the station isn't sitting on its hands and waiting to take another ratings pounding when the May sweeps begin on Thursday. Instead they're trying something new while also giving the anchors and producers a little change of pace and maybe even a bounce in their steps.

Please, though, no cooking segments.