Talking TV: Ernie Anastos On News Anchoring And Fostering Positivity
Ernie Anastos was, for decades, a fixture of New York news. The veteran anchor did memorable stints at all of the city’s major network desks, earning a fierce loyalty from the city’s viewers in the process.
Anastos stepped away from the grind in 2020 to head back to school — Harvard Business School, in this case — to gain a fresh perspective on his life’s work. This fall, he’ll be returning to television with Positively America with Ernie Anastos, a riff on his Positively Ernie segments from his anchoring days.
The new show will feature conversations with a diverse array of Americans in which he hopes to excavate nuggets of wisdom and viable principles to live by. In this Talking TV conversation, he explains his ambitions for the show and his thoughts on how local news anchoring has become more complex — but essential — in a polarized and anxious world.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: When I was growing up in New York, Ernie Anastos was one of those TV anchors who was simply ubiquitous and part of the fabric of my television experience. The Hall of Fame broadcaster racked up more than 30 Emmy awards and nominations in his long career, along with a Murrow award. Every March 21 is now Ernie Anastos Day in New York City, such is the scope of his legend there. Well, Anastos is coming back to TV this fall with a new show, Positively America with Ernie Anastos, which will premiere on Gray Television stations in 113 markets.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. This week, a conversation with Ernie Anastos about his show and his plans for it and his thoughts about local TV news, its future in an ever more fracturing landscape. We’ll be right back with that.
Welcome, Ernie Anastos, to Talking TV.
Ernie Anastos: How are you, good to see you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
It’s a real pleasure to talk to you.
Oh, it’s great, it’s great. And, you know, I love this this whole atmosphere that we have. I mean, a lot of change with the pandemic and television, in fact, you know, has gone in that direction where so many of the interviews are virtual like we’re doing now. And you see them on all the channels and all the major networks. It’s become a way of doing things.
It’s easier in many ways. It’s certainly a little more protective because of the pandemic. But in another way, you know, it makes it more flexible for people like you and myself to be able to contact guests and say, could you do an interview? And it’s so much easier in terms of scheduling to do it from their home or office or somewhere else.
Absolutely. It’s been an indispensable tool for broadening, I think, all of our interview horizons, the possibility of who we can talk to and as you said, just as easily as we can. Now, with that, Ernie, I want to ask you about the show. Positivity seems to be the name of the game with this new show. What’s it going to be about?
Well, first of all, I want to thank Gray Television. They do have 113 markets that they cover. They’re starting me off. I hope to be in all of those markets eventually. They’re doing a great job to help me. But I’m grateful for whoever will be watching me across the country. And as we build our following, it’s a wonderful program, in my opinion. I’ve been on television, Michael, as you know, I mean, four decades in New York. And I’m honored by that. I mean, I really am. And we’ll talk about that in a little while. But I said, you know, what can I do now at this point in my career that will really crystallize a lot of the things that I’ve worked for all this time. And I did Positively Ernie in New York, which was, you know, a feature where I would go out on the street, talk to people, ask them questions. I would give some quotes and opinions on the air, positive opinions about good things. I didn’t get into politics or any of that. The program is not about politics, for sure. The program is really about trying to educate people, to inform them, entertain them, and to inspire people, and in many ways to empower them.
So, I took a break from television for a while because of the pandemic. I had a wonderful experience going to Harvard Business School. I studied there for a year. I took many courses, got my diplomas, and I felt really good about it. And it was a great experience talking to students all over the world. So, I learned a lot about leadership and sort of management skills, and I said, OK, let me apply some of these principles and what I’ve learned.
So, I came up with Positively America and I said, what we need is some balance. I applaud a lot of — and they’re colleagues of mine — hardworking journalists every day, try to do their job and try to cover the news. And it’s not easy because that news, Michael, as you know, is very negative. I mean, there are a lot of terrible stories out there that people feel every day. It’s harmful, harmful to our health, harmful to our mental attitude. And I hear from a lot of people who tell me, can we have something better? Can we get some good news? And I decided that I wanted to do that. I wanted to continue my effort to champion more positive stories on the air.
So, this program is going to be very personal. It’s a half-hour weekend show, and it’s the kind of program that I feel I’m going to have a lot of fun with. There are a number of people that I have had on my shows over the years who are really professionals and experts in their field, whether it’s lifestyle, health, education, travel, careers, everything that you can think about that affects your life.
So, I sat down, I made my list contact. I’ve got about 50 people that will be on the air with me during the course of 26 weeks. And so, we decided on topics, and I was looking for things that people could really relate to, some cutting edge material to things that people would be able to say, Gee, I learned something and now I’m going to apply it to my life or to the lives of my family, my children. And the format is good because as I talk to people in a nice, casual way about whatever the subject is, let’s talk about health, for example, you know, mental health. What can we do to help ourselves get through these issues, whether it’s the pandemic or whether it’s just personal problems, that we may have to face challenges every day. But as we do it, I want it to be a learning experience.
I wish I had been a teacher. I really love that field. I think teachers are wonderful and we’re going to put up on the screen, you know, some bullet points, things that we’re talking about. And at the very end of the interview, I want to make sure that the viewer has somewhere to go, the payoff, if you will. I’m going to say, OK, now, we just had a great interview talking about this subject. If people want more help, where can they go? And we’ll put up on the screen a website, a book to read somewhere where they can get additional information.
I’m excited about the content. And in addition to that, I love going out on the street. I enjoy talking to people. I love that one-on-one connection. And I’ve done probably close to a thousand questions on my 6 o’clock show. I go out and I ask people, you know, what advice would you give a newborn baby? What’s been the best day of your life? Or if you could relive your life one day, what would it be? And other good questions that I really think people can relate to.
I’m going to be doing my questions, be doing some in New York. I hope to be able to travel and do some in other cities. But I’m also going to give a quotation. I love quotations, so I’m going to put a quote on the screen, and then later I’m going to elaborate, but I’m going to make it personal. For example, the show that I’m doing now, the quote that comes to my mind, don’t go where the path may lead. Go where there’s no path and leave a trail. And that’s what I’m trying to do. And at the end of that quote, I want to make it a very personal comment to my viewers. I want them to know how I feel.
I was talking to somebody recently and she said to me, Ernie, we have watched you and listened to you talk to other people and do interviews for years. Now it’s time for you, for us to hear from you. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?
So, the format here, are we talking about you’re entirely out in the field or is there a studio or are you going to be doing it from your home?
Yes, there is a studio. And in fact, I must tell you, it’s a beautiful studio. It looks great. The colors are wonderful, they’re bright yellows and oranges. I didn’t want to get into the traditional colors that most stations use. So, it’s a beautiful set. It looks fabulous. And the technology is amazing. Michael, I mean, you know, this is your beat. It’s going to look great on the screen. We have a lot of zoom effects. When I talk to my interviewees, there will be a split screen. It’s going to look great. So, my interviews are virtual. I’ll be in the studio, but I’m going to go out on the street, ask some questions, and you’ll see me involved in certain stories that I’m doing. But it is a studio show with some aspects of me being out there talking to people.
This is basically meant to be, in a sense, a balm against all the toxicity that we’re seeing out there. And do you think that’s even a bomb that’s capable of being diffused right now, given how high tensions are running and they seem to be still moving toward the boiling point?
Michael, you’re asking a very good question that many people ask. This is a difficult time, stressful time. You know, it has been you know, if you look at history, you know, this isn’t the first time we’ve been through some really serious moments in our country and in our world. But I believe in optimism, and I believe in hope. And I believe that people feel that deep down it’s kind of inherent. It’s like, you know, I want to make things better. I want to I want to create something that can make me happier. And I believe that we have a place.
Yes, I’m going to be that voice. And I’m hoping that other people will accept that, and maybe other stations will promote their own positive stories. Some stations are doing that, but I’m devoting all my programs to that. I hope that it will help. I’m going to make this interactive. We’re going to be asking people to send us some story ideas that they have. We’re going to share their information. We’re going to put it up on the screen because there will be other stations, of course, carrying this in syndication. I’m going to be calling on some of those stations to share some of their positive stories that they’ve put on their local news that we can share with the rest of the country. But I want to I want to make it something that people will feel.
You know, Maya Angelou had a great line: People may not remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And that’s very important to me. There is a sense when you come through that screen, as I’m talking to you, of what the other person is like, what their emotions are like. You know, I majored in sociology in college. I had been on the air from the age of 16, 16 years old, had my first radio job where I grew up back in New Hampshire, built a radio station in my basement at 13. I had all these microphones and records and all that kind of stuff. And at 16, I went to the local station and the guy said to me, You got a good voice. You want to take an audition? And I did. And he said, I’m going to give you your own radio show on the weekend. It’s going to be called Saturday Morning Discussion. You’re going to do an interview show with all young people from high school, talk about issues, play their music. And there you are. And I have been on the air since 16 years old. So, I have a passion for this. I love what I do, but I feel that over the years, I’ve learned so much. Walter Cronkite became a real good mentor to me. There’s a wonderful videotape that he recorded for me when I was having an anniversary in New York, and he paid me such a high compliment. And coming from Walter, that really touched my heart.
Walter taught me a lot of basics. He said to me, you know, Ernie, things that you have to remember in your career. You’re a watchdog. You’re not an attack dog. You’re not a lap dog. You’re a watchdog. You bark. You tell people what’s going on. You let them respond. That’s our job. Neutral. I don’t voice my opinion. Never have. Michael. You’ve seen me on the air. People don’t know what my [political] feelings may be because I’m very neutral. But I think that that’s important. That people have that trust in me, a confidence in my voice, that I’m genuine and I’m trying to help them get through life just like the rest of us.
Let me ask you for the show’s distribution footprint. Is it exclusive to Gray Television or are you going to be offering it for distribution with other groups?
Well, you know, the people at Gray are terrific. There’s a gentleman there, Greg Conklin, who’s been helping me and has developed a program with me in terms of setting it up for distribution. He’s really done a great job and he’s put me on a number of stations, and I’m grateful for that. And they’re going to continue to build. He did tell me that there are some other companies that are interested in working with Gray to be able to distribute. So, I think that’s how it works. I’ve never done syndication, but I believe that’s how it works. So yes, obviously the objective is to get on as many stations as possible, and that’s what I’m looking to do. The more people I can reach, the better off the program will be.
You mentioned earlier you’d left WNYW in New York to attend Harvard Business School to study leadership. So, what did you draw from that experience? You mentioned you were there for a year.
There are several things that I that I experienced as I started to tell you in the beginning. The program was wonderful, the professors are terrific. And they really offer not only good information that they have obtained through their studies, but they also bring in experts, people who are CEOs of companies, people who are interested in sustainability, people who want to do good.
And that was one of the messages that I that I got from the Harvard programs, that if you want to be a good leader, you have to set an example. You have to listen. You have to help others become leaders. You give them the kind of information that you think is important. You learn as you’re growing, but you help other people to become leaders.
I learned about the passion that I have. It strengthened my commitment. I’ve always wanted to be an ambassador of goodwill, and I think the Harvard program taught me a lot of that through the courses and through the information that I picked up from not only the professors, but from experts who were invited to speak to us and believe it or not, from other students globally, people from different parts of the world in Paris and London and Abu Dhabi, wherever it was, giving their experiences. A lot of these people obviously were not undergraduate students. They were graduate people. They had already had their education and they were also working in whatever industry they were in. So, I learned a lot from that.
But I must say that during that time I also had the opportunity to take a break that I haven’t had in years, Michael, and I love this. I’m not complaining. I have been really working since I was 16 years old. I had a job when I was in college. When I got out of school, I worked in Boston, Providence, Chicago, New York. I have been working and my family knows that I love what I do, and I devote my time to my family more than anything.
But I learned to think a little bit more and take the time to solidify my feelings. And I think that that’s what I did over that two-year period, the Harvard program. And then time for me to just sit back and observe, to be able to really listen to what’s going on out there, to listen to myself and to strengthen my own personal commitment to what I want to do.
They use the word legacy a lot. We all have that. Everyone has some legacy in life. I believe that we all have a purpose. Some of the interviews that I’ve done over the years have been fabulous. And I remember talking to someone who was on my program, and I said, What is life all about anyway? What should we learn from life? She was a social scientist. And she said to me, you know, many people think that if you achieve three things in life, you’re going to be happy. Three things.
What are they? Well, she said people think that if they get more, more of something, whatever it is, more money, more power, they’ll be happy. They achieve more. But they’re still empty. They’re still searching. So, they say, Well, more now, I’ll make it better, or I’ll just have a better house, a better car. Whatever it is, I’ll just make it all better, better, better, better. So, they make everything better. The progression, she said. They’re not as happy. They’re still not satisfied. So, they go to the third thing. What’s that? Different. Now I will set myself apart from everybody. I don’t want to be like everybody else. I want to be different.
Now, Michael, when you think about this, I mean, you can see this. I mean, it happens with a lot of celebrities, but it happens with a lot of people who are very successful. It just happens with everyone more, better and different. But they’re not happy. They’re not satisfied. But there’s one thing that changes your life. I said, What’s that? She says, Purpose. Purpose. When a person has a sense of purpose in their life, some kind of commitment. Could be anything. It could be just being a good teacher, a good a good parent, being good at your work, having a commitment to something that you really believe in. If you have a sense of why you’re here, why were you born.
You have to ask these questions. I do it all the time. I do with a lot of young people. I’ve written a couple of books. The last one I did was Ernie and the Big News for young readers. And I’ve gone out to so many schools in New York for 500 kids in an auditorium, and we’ve given away 15,000 books, free books. Ernie and the Big News, you dream about what you want to be and how you can change the world. And, you know, I started thinking about all these things and I said, this is this is the commitment, a sense of purpose in your life. And I’ve learned that over the over the two years to even strengthen and solidify what I’ve always believed in all my life. And now I have a chance to do it. I don’t have to worry about, you know, reporting the news every night, and that was it.
I think we’re getting a pretty good preview of this show right here. I want to ask you a little bit about your anchoring career. You’ve spent decades at the anchor desk of every major station in the country’s number one DMA, which is the brass ring for people all across the U.S. Now that you’ve stepped back from the daily intensity of it, how do you assess the state of local TV news? Will you still eat what they’re cooking?
Michael, I will say something that’s very important about local news. I have done some national programs. I have guest hosted on Good Morning America, CBS This Morning. I was on CBS on the overnight. I had a program, America’s Asking. So, I’ve had some network exposure and certainly have a lot of good friends that are in network television. But I spent my time in local television. And the thing that I must express is that I have seen so many dedicated people in local news. If you watch a local newscast, you’re not going to find opinion. You really are not. It’s just news of the day, the facts. We cover the local stories. We cover the national stories, the international stories, feature stories. But I think when you’re watching a local newscast, you’re getting information. I think you’ll agree with me. You’re getting information. So, I applaud them for that.
Oftentimes, when you’re watching network television, particularly cable, they’ll give you news as a hook and then they give you their opinion. You get a lot of commentary, which is fine. This is America. I will always defend the right to freedom of speech. But it’s different. It’s different from the local news. So, I have to wave the flag for local television all across America because I think they do a great job. But I’ve learned a lot.
That said, do you think local news is evolving fast enough to keep up with the tastes and expectation of viewers, especially since streaming has opened up so many choices and now allowed viewers to time shift their consumption of news?
Well, I think a lot of stations are doing it. And Michael, you and I both know it comes down to economics. Things are expensive. And I think a lot of the local stations and some of the smaller markets that don’t have the resources, they don’t have money, or they don’t have the people to be able to do a lot of things, do their best. Some of the larger stations, let’s say in the top 15, 20 markets who are owned by major corporations, they do have the opportunity to initiate, you know, websites of their own live streaming. And you’re seeing that particularly in New York. A lot of the stations are doing that, and they’re trying to expand their reach from not just the local channel that they’re on, but other ways to be able to reach people. And I think they’re doing a good job at that. But it’s difficult competition.
I have to tell you about competition. My goodness. I mean, when I first started, right, there were really only three networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox was not there yet, and we didn’t have anything but a 6 p.m. news for a half hour of local. 6:30 was national. And then you had an 11 p.m. show. That was it. When I first started in New York in 1978, our ratings at 11 were huge. Now, when you start looking at ratings, they’ve dropped. Why? Because you have so much competition. There are so many channels to watch. I mean, internet, satellite, cable, social media, everything you can imagine. What you’re doing. There are so many places for people to go to. At one time, we didn’t have all of that. A lot of it is good. A lot of it is great. I applaud the, you know, the technology that’s out there and what they’re doing, but a lot of it is very confusing.
There was a book written several years back. I’m trying to remember the author and it was called Information Anxiety. And it was all about how people, and I can understand this, people are anxious about what to watch, what to see, what to hear, what to read, and trying to find a way to narrow it down to how it applies to them is difficult because you have so much. I’m going to go back for one minute. I did another interview, or I’ve done some interviews like in an interview with someone, and I ask the same kind of question, What’s the problem? How come everybody is so stressed out today? And he said to me, I’m going to simplify this for you. And this was a very smart guy. He said: We have too many choices. I said, Really? Yeah. You should think about it. We have too many choices. I mean, you know, it’s great that a lot of, you know, areas have exploded, you know? Buying a car, buying toothpaste. But people are confused, and it makes us anxious. We have too much to choose from and it’s contributing to our anxiety.
And fundamentally, people want and I’m saying this respectfully, people want some simplicity in life. Simplicity. I mean, if you go somewhere with your loved ones, your family, what’s the best kind of day you can have? Most people say, oh, we sat under a tree with my kids. We had a picnic. We were just, you know, watching the water, you know, by the river. We just talked. We played ball. We came home, we sat down, we ate. Simplicity.
Too many choices and the fear of missing out.
It’s tough. And you know what? It’s getting worse because we’re getting more. We’re getting more of everything more, better, different.
I want to ask you one more question about anchoring Ernie, since you are among the deans of American anchors. Given viewers’ political polarization and their abiding mistrust in news generally, now accepting that local news fares better in those in surveys of trust, it doesn’t seem that the anchor’s job is getting any easier. How do you think that anchors need to adapt and evolve into what viewers need them to be right now? How do they stay relevant?
Good question. Difficult question. I’m not sure of the answer. It puts a lot of anchors in a very awkward position where they have to decide. And you know, the stories. There have been anchors working for some networks who have decided that they didn’t believe in the ideology or the views of that particular cable network or whatever it happens to be. And they’ve walked away. I think it’s very personal.
I think if you are strong in your beliefs and you follow the philosophy of the company that you’re working for, then you stay. If not, you move. You try to find a place that’s more comfortable for you, that’s more fitting to your personality, to your beliefs, to your feelings. I’m always very cautious about opinion. I think I started mentioning that from the very beginning.
The media has changed. The media is chock full of opinion and many people like it. Because they believe in that same concept, the same idea, whatever the philosophy is. And then there are other people who are annoyed by it. And are trying to find the truth. That’s a big question.
Many people, if you look at the research in the surveys, this is my opinion necessarily, but people are worried about finding the truth. Where can I learn what really is going on? And I think that’s become a challenge to a lot of anchors and a lot of broadcasters. I remember when I was a young desk assistant at CBS2, right after college, I came to New York and went into the Army Reserves, came to New York, and I worked at Channel 2 as a desk assistant. I was like 20 years old, 21 years old. And I remember they handed a book out, and it was for the journalists, for the anchors and for the reporters. And I remember reading that book and it said, When you’re on the air — I’m just to paraphrase — when you’re on the air, you ought to show no emotion. No facial expressions, no bodily gestures. The inflection in your voice must be neutral. Imagine it. I remember reading that I was 21 years old, just starting in the business, and they were saying that this is what we needed. We had standards and practices. I mean, everywhere, whether it was entertainment or the news, you couldn’t show certain things. You couldn’t say certain things. You couldn’t do certain things. There were these practices that people adhere to. How has that changed, Michael? I ask you. People now have changed, and the industry has changed, and we have to adapt to it in our own way.
And do you think that viewers still need an empathic figure anchoring the desk, someone to, you know, in terms of their relationship with the viewers? How do you think that is changing that relationship?
Oh, that relationship, I think it’s crucial. I think people need to feel confident in whoever is anchoring. I think they have to feel that there is some relationship with that person. They have to have some trust that there’s some feeling and some sense that this person is giving them the truth. And there are so many viewers out there that are loyal to whoever it happens to be. I think that’s important
I’ve always appreciated the fact that people, when I see them on the street, will always say to me, you know, if I’m going to get any kind of bad news, I want to get it from you, because I think that you’re going to tell me what really is going on and you’re going to feel something. You’re going to sense of it. People need to feel that. Going back to what we said, they won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. I walk down the street and people come to me. It’s a sense of companionship. We’ve shared social history together. We feel family. And I love that.
So, the anchor has a very important role to make sure that they stand up for the integrity and the trust that has been given to them. But it’s their own way of doing it that makes the difference and that comes into personality and who you are.
I think that’s good advice on which to end this conversation.
Michael, I want to thank you very much. And all good things to you and your family, Michael. Keep up the good work. We haven’t said anything about you’ve got an impeccable and a sterling personality and a great reputation. I mean that and I thank you very much for the good work that you’re doing.
You’re very kind, Ernie. The new show, Positively America with Ernie Anastos, will be out this fall on Gray Television stations across the land and perhaps spreading with an even wider footprint. Thank you so much, Ernie.
Thank you, Michael. Take care.
Take care. Thanks to all of you for watching and listening and see you next time.