AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Is It Time To Kill The Anchors?

Probably not, but the upcoming and much ballyhooed experiment with anchorless news at Tribune's KIAH Houston may allow broadcasters to gauge just how much value anchors still have these days. “There will always be a voice and lots of personality,” says Lee Abrams, who conceived the anchorless newscast before being forced to resign from Tribune. “There just won’t be two people behind the desk.”

Despite the high-profile departure of the guy behind the idea, Tribune Broadcasting’s KIAH in Houston is still prepping to launch its anchor-free newscast, most likely in January.

“We are going ahead and it’s going to be anchorless, like envisioned,” says KIAH General Manager Roger Bare.

Gary Jaffe, a Miami-area producer and director, has been hired to oversee the project, and staff is undergoing the intense kind of training that comes with basically tossing out the way local news has always been done, Bare said.

The month-long delay in the debut of the format, called NewsFix, (it was originally slated to start in December) has everything to do with logistics — workflow reconfiguration, staff training and technology upgrades — and nothing to do with the very public October resignation of Lee Abrams, who, as Tribune’s chief innovation officer, came up with the idea, Bare says.

(Abrams resigned after an indefinite suspension for sending a companywide e-mail with a link to content some employees found offensive, including an Onion video showing scantily-dressed women, apparently drunk.)

“It’s important to get this right,” Bare says. “And from where we are, it’s better to take our time and make sure the product is what we want from day one.”

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With weeks still to go, Bare is stingy with details on the new format, allowing that it will rely more heavily on pre-produced stories and will have a faster pace.

But what will distinguish the newscast mostly is the absence of anchors, a fixture in TV newscasts for decades.

“There will always be a voice and lots of personality,” Abrams says in an interview with TVNewsCheck. “There just won’t be two people behind the desk.”

At a time when TV news execs are scrambling to figure out how best to fend off growing competition from new media and working with fewer resources, they will undoubtedly be watching KIAH’s experiment to see how it goes over with audiences.

In particular, they may be able to use KIAH as a gauge to measure how much value anchors really bring to viewers or advertisers.

Abrams is not directly involved in the project anymore, but he too is keeping an eye on it.

“It can be far more emotional and a more cinematic experience,” Abrams says.

With bigger, better TV sets, as well as new media competitors, the staid idea of having anchors — or even reporters, for that matter — talking at audiences simply doesn’t cut it anymore, especially as viewers expect increasingly more from media, even in news, he says.

In turn, NewsFix stories should more closely echo elements of old-time movie house newsreels, with emotional footage, dramatic narration and sound, like music, telling the story, he says.

Using experts as reporters (cops to cover crime, for instance) and creating special segments for them, much as meteorologists and sports reporters have, is another facet of the format, boosting news talents’ engagement with viewers by telling the news in a more emotionally driven and comprehensive way, he says.

“I’ll be very surprised if it works,” says Bob Papper, a Hofstra University media studies professor who studies TV news.

Even as consumers turn to a wider range media, with the Internet tops among them, television is still the reigning source of news and information — and studies show that viewers, especially 18-34 year-olds, still view anchors as an important part of the medium.

“There is still a sizeable number of people who want to sit there and have someone guide them through the news,” Papper said. “If that didn’t matter, they’d just get it online.”

But others believe that KIAH and Abrams may be onto something.

Jerry Gumbert, president and CEO of AR&D, a media strategy firm, says immense changes in consumer behavior “dictate new ideas and opportunities” and his research shows that viewers actually don’t care about anchors — who appear on screen for only about four minutes of a 30-minute newscast — as much as they used to.

According to Gumbert, the number of viewers who choose to watch one station over another because of the anchors has declined by 40% since 2000.

“Consumers now have the power and it’s the power of choice,” he said.  “Their top drivers for news and info are news and content before people.”

 AR&D actually developed a similar concept about six years ago, but have yet to recommend it to clients, Gumbert said.

According to Abrams, Tribune is also looking into shaking up morning newscasts through a new format called Eye Opener, which is similar to NewsFix in some ways — heavy on pictures, sound and real people — but does not emphasize hard news.

Rather, Eye Opener is programmed more like a “video variety” show, showcasing pop culture phenomena from viral videos to funny commercials, he said.

“It has the kind of things that are incredibly popular on YouTube but never make it to television,” Abrams said, adding that he believes morning shows are as ripe for dramatic change as evening news.

“It’s rethinking it,” he said.

What direction these big ideas will take may be easier to predict post-January, once KIAH launches its new news and everyone watching can see if it works.

Meantime, at a time when news in many markets needs a dramatic boost, it could be an idea worth kicking around.

“If it works, it could be tremendous,” Abrams says. “If it doesn’t work, they probably couldn’t be any worse than they are now.”


Air Check by Diana Marszalek is a bi-monthy column about local TV news and the people that make it happen. Marszalek can be reached at [email protected]

For other Air Check stories, click here.


Comments (20)

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kendra campbell says:

November 16, 2010 at 8:13 am

Let’s get rid of the anchors ($$$) and make local news “a far more emotional and more cinematic experience”. LOL! Another example of never dealing with the real problem: Local news is nothing but cheap filler on most stations.. News content is that pesky stuff outside commercial breaks – defined by endless crime, mayhem, car wrecks, and weather hype.

none none says:

November 16, 2010 at 8:33 am

Come on JD – “Local news Cheap filler” – when is the last time you looked at a local station’s news budget – Cheap filler I think not. You want cheap clear a barter show, there are many to choose from.

    kendra campbell says:

    November 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    The total news budget may be impressive, but it’s amortized and diluted by the countless hours of drivel. In many general manageer and corporate minds it makes more sense to get all the revenue in a poorly rated newscast than split it in a barter program. This is especially true when you see local half hourl newscasts with up to 12 minutes of commercials. This news fill philosophy may work today, but it is doomed for the future as demo ratings continue to erode.

anders bjers says:

November 16, 2010 at 9:12 am

In the 1980’s news leader WFAA-TV used to run a anchor-less version of their 10pm newscast at midnight and it was very watchable and some might say an improvement. The news landscape has changed and (with all due respect to mr. Gumbert) the news consultants are unfortunately among the last to realize it. Viewers don’t care if it’s Viper or some other kind of radar. The best news writing is conversational and yet stations make it less so by jamming in awkward branding language that viewers don’t care about. I don’t have to be told every time that the weather guy is a meteorologist. That notion started in the ’70’s.

too many consultants and not enough imagination in this business.

    Patrick Paolini says:

    November 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    I suspect this Midnight show didn’t include any miscues contained in the 10 o’clock show. The reason why anchors will endure is not for a newscast in which everything goes right, but for those occasions when everything goes wrong. Everyone has had a live shot go down at the worst possible moment, or a tight-deadline miss its spot in the rundown. In such situations, who does a director go to? The anchor on-set. Until machines are 100% reliable and systems are 100% failure-proof, or people no longer desire live news, there will be a need for anchors. They’re a hedge against Murphy’s Laws.

Teri Green says:

November 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

It’s finally time someone realized paying high salaries to read news is bad business. In the old days, anchors were real reporters, not like today where they show up and read and do the field work a couple, three times a year so they can claim they are reporters. If you look back at 9-11 as it happened on various sites, you can see how clueless the anchors were. It was comical how woefully unprepared these people were when they had no script.

    Gregg Palermo says:

    November 16, 2010 at 11:02 am

    If that was true, the enduring stereotype of Ted Baxter would never have resonated with so many Mary Tyler Moore Show viewers in 1970. Anchors who come up through the ranks may sometimes be good reporters, but more often than not they are kicked to the anchor chair because they cannot report but have a pleasant personality/fa.

Gregg Palermo says:

November 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

By this logic, radio shows with voice-tracked or absent DJs would draw just as many listeners as live DJs.

Nicole Evatt says:

November 16, 2010 at 1:51 pm

My money is on Roger Bare

Scott McDaniel says:

November 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Living, breathing, knowledgeable PEOPLE attract other people…it’s that CONNECTION that gets across the moat between the source and the audience…”Jukebox” Radio is a failure, (unless you like miniscule numbers), but, right, the corporation spends nothing and anything in the coffers looks good on the bottom line…but people, (the audience) relate to people, (the on-air folks)…and, (Surprise-Surprise), they form a relationship…this isn’t brain surgery, it’s called LIFE. Take life out of broadcasting and you kill it, (Corporate-Think “Executives”, are you ever going to get this?) True, a bad anchor will hurt the bottom line, but a good one will keep everyone, and everything buzzing.
Peter Bright

Mike Stroot says:

November 16, 2010 at 4:27 pm

I’m with Peter Bright on this one…take the soul out of the newscast and you lose the human element. This is provided you have two anchors that can actually relate to the audience as well as one another naturally. News is people…said the great Don Hewitt and people are news. Tell storys and connect with them as journalists. I applaud innovation, but I’m not ready to conceed to Abrams on this one…too many of his radical Ideas have failed. If I’m an advertiser on your TV station and I’m buying news…I want my spot on a product that’s being watched that’s drawing the customers I want…not an experiment. Here’s an idea…provided both products…anchors in the newscast and anchors away and let the viewers choose their product. Now there’s a novel idea…giving the viewers what they want…not force feeding them some new fangled product they have no desire for and expect them to like it!

Michael Ford says:

November 17, 2010 at 12:01 am

The problem with local news is not now, nor has it ever been, with the anchors. Have anchors or don’t have them, I don’t really think the audience cares. The real problems with local news beagn when the reporters stopped REPORTING and began telling STORIES. Walter Cronkite never “presented a story” in his career…he reported the facts and let the viewer take it from their. It was called the “Huntley-Brinkly REPORT”, if I recall correctly, not the “Huntley-Brinkly STORY”. Local news needs to stop infusing their REPORTS with the reporters opinions, politics, or the the need to tell me about the subjects’ entire life STORY. Tell me that the bank was robbed, tell me that 3 men got away, and tell me that they are armed and dangerous…I couldn’t care less that they were triplets and that their father served in Vietnam while their aunt raised them.

Jack Quick says:

November 17, 2010 at 12:12 am

“Is It Time To Kill The Consultants?”
Absolutely. Let’s start with Jerry Gumbert, president and CEO of AR&D, a media strategy firm grasping for yet another ridiculous way to try to make television news divisions think consultants are relevant.
Gumbert says immense changes in consumer behavior “dictate new ideas and opportunities.”
So you station and news executives, how about this for a new idea… seizing the opportunity to cut the cord from the very drug pushers who have ruined the local news business and do something really radical… do your own research in your own market and use your own ideas and see how good you are.
If you believe AR&D research shows that viewers actually don’t care about anchors, you are the very sucker born every minute. For the Jerry Gumbert’s of the world are nothing more than Barnum wannabees, gleeful;ly selling you snake oil by the barrel.
Ever wonder why anchors only appear on screen for about four minutes of a 30-minute newscast? Because the consultants conned you into thinking people, in this “fast-paced” world we live in, would rather be mesmerized by intrusive waves of graphics and banners and maps and effects and meaningless video than look at someone telling them what’s going on in their lives.
Have you ever noticed there’s a direct correlation between all the crap consultants have convinced you belongs on the screen… and a steady decline in ratings?
According to Gumbert, the top drivers for news and info are “news and content before people.”
Believe that and you deserve to fail. Think the anchors on a well run station don’t mean anything to your viewers, walk the mall with them on a Saturday afternoon.
You know why AR&D’s anchor-less news concept has been on the shelf for about six years… and why they have yet to recommend it to clients?
Because they know you’ll drink a little poison now and then, but not enough to kill you.
Now go cover more politics… no wait, more weather… no wait, more crime… no less crime… stand up, walk around… no wait, sit down, the anchor desk is the center of power…no wait….what did we say last year? Forget that.

    Bob Sullivan says:

    November 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Right on!

Debi Wilkey says:

November 17, 2010 at 3:07 am

“NewsFix stories should more closely echo elements of old-time movie house newsreels, with emotional footage, dramatic narration and sound, like music, telling the story”–pardon me, but which part of this should we not already be doing? And which part are we prevented from doing because we have anchors and reporters providing focus and perspective? In other words, how does having anchors prevent us from doing quality journalism, telling stories with the greatest possible production values and technical quality? “Using experts as reporters (cops to cover crime, for instance)…is another facet of the format” Is this anything other than spinning the embracing of amateurism as a way to cut costs? When you’ve eliminated your anchors and reporters in favor of an empty set and amateurs, where will all those “movie reel” production values come from? Or will this just be a superficial treatment applied by rote to every story?

Burl Osborne says:

November 17, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Eric, Peter and a couples others are really on to something. First of all, where are today’s Walter Cronkites? There isn’t a news anchor today whose news you could claim “If s/he said it then it’s true” because you know they did the hard work to verify it (old journalism standards). And now, when you have over 50% of 20 year olds getting their news from Jon Stewart, what does that tell you about the news? When car jackings, and some celebrity is getting custody of her kids after being locked up for drugs takes over prime news, any thinking person has to ask “Who the hell canceled the news?” No wonder so many Americans don’t know what is going on any more. So, if news readers aren’t worth their salaries, it seems clear that we need true, hard hitting, fact finding (apolitical) news journalists. Otherwise people will continue to believe that Iraq attacked us on 9/11, that it had weapons of mass destruction, that Obama spent $200 million a day in Asia, and will continue to simply hear propaganda about Washtington DC instead of real information in order to vote on serious issues.

    Bob Sullivan says:

    November 17, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    TV Research Guy, you’re spot on! As Walter Cronkite was quoted, in Tom Fenton’s great book, “Bad News”, we need more FCC license challenges at the local level!

Blanca Caceres says:

November 17, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Will the filler sans anchor include the usual pre-packaged “crap” the Trib has been farming out to it’s affiliates & that of LocalTV? The retreading of Larry Mendte and the CyberGuy just to name a few cost cutters to the mix. This further fills a shrinking news hole between longer breaks so less is more of little to nothing.
Add to it that KIAH has little to know current following with viewers like other local stations that have atleast a percentage of viewers who have become familiar with a anchor or team or style of newscast. Local tv news viewership has shrunk in many markets because “local” news is really not local anymore and rarely delivers the day’s local events. It’s a CONsultant molded mess of crime leads followed by scams followed by goofy weather followed by insert package produced elsewhere followed by a “techno” gadget segment or hollywood celeb OMG blitz leading into jeopardy reruns.
Look at the people running the Trib… what a total trainwreck. They ruined more careers than improved anything on the air while they fattened up on the trappings of the company as the ship sank. Why anyone would trust these “innovators” is beyond me. They’ll al come out smelling like roses while the rest of the garden wilts away.

Bob Sullivan says:

November 17, 2010 at 11:02 pm

The times, they are a’changin’…
Come network executives, please heed the call, the barriers are fallin’ the writings on the wall,

Mark MacCarthy says:

November 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

I agree with everything said by everyone. Especially abandon consultants. In 1961 a CBS in San Diego practically started “happy talk” with a group of air personalities who definitely worked well together. Now here in Kansas City–50 years later–local stations here include miserable on-air people who pretend to do “happy-talk”–filling time around innumerable and on-going commercials. In Kansas City, It has been way past BORING for years! No matter which of 4 stations we try to watch, Mrs. Miller and I find the same dull stories, read by the very same dull persons. NewsFix? GO for it, Roger Bare!


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