Talking TV: What Viewers Want From TV Anchors
If Barry Nash’s research is to be believed, what audiences want from their TV anchors is a moving target. It all depends on when you ask and then how you allow them to answer.
Nash, a talent coach and consultant, has worked with CNN, NBC and Telemundo stations, among numerous others. He has also spent years honing research on what viewers want from anchors, evolving a methodology that gives them wide latitude to answer that question and then employs advanced linguistic algorithms to analyze their comments.
That analysis finds that what viewers want changes as the emotional needs of the community change. Pre-pandemic, for instance, personality was cited as the most important trait in an anchor. A sense of community led the traits in the worst days of the pandemic and during Black Lives Matter protests.
In this Talking TV conversation, Nash argues why open-ended questions to viewers can yield qualitative insights for news talent. He addresses criticisms of the consultant/coach’s role in the newsroom and shares the most effective approach to coaching anchors in a collaborative way.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: What do viewers want from their news anchors? Do they want a big personality? Relatability? Trustworthiness? Do they know what they really want?
Barry Nash says he has some answers to that question, and he says it’s all in the way it’s asked. Nash is a talent coach. His company has worked with NBC and Telemundo stations, CNN, CBS Sports and many other groups.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. Coming up, a conversation with Barry Nash about news anchors, audience expectations about them and where coaches and consultants may help or hinder anchors in presenting their most authentic selves to viewers.
Welcome Barry Nash to Talking TV.
Barry Nash: Hi, Michael. Thanks for having me.
Barry, you have been asking viewers what they want to see in news anchors and the answers have been a moving target. What are they telling you?
A little background, Michael, about what we’ve been doing, which is we got into I got interested a few years ago reading about how linguistics and algorithms had advanced to the point that companies could look at the comments customers made and do analysis just impossible to do manually – you know, understanding how people were using language, how they were modifying things, essentially telling companies what people valued the most.
And I got curious about whether we could use that in my line of work, which is helping journalists be effective on camera. And the answer came back, well, sure, as long as the algorithms have a dictionary to do that evaluation.
So, we spent close to three years creating a dictionary that would enable these advanced linguistic algorithms to analyze comments people made about news talent. And that gave us insight we’d never had before. We could ask very open-ended questions, you know, what are your impressions of this person? And the huge value in that was we weren’t priming answers in any way. We were getting literally, I’d say, as I did, we’d ask why I want to hire a news anchor that you will trust and love watching and want to watch on a regular basis. Please describe the type of person I need to find for that job. And the value of that is we weren’t doing anything but asking people to go into their own imaginations and talk to us about that.
We were getting things, in their words, at a level we’d never had before. And one of the most interesting things we learned, kind of heartening things for me, was that what viewers want and value in on-air journalists changes as the communal state of mind changes, as communal anxieties change. So, we got one answer when we were asking that question before the pandemic. We got a different answer when we asked that question in the middle of the Black Lives Matter protests, right in the middle of the pandemic. And we got another answer when we asked that question after the presidential election in 2020, but before the January 6 insurrection.
Very tough to be on the receiving end of shifting expectations, I would think, for the anchors. To say, well, now I need to be a different person at different points of the cultural trajectory. So, what you’re saying the issue has been in the past was these kinds of surveys or queries have been made to viewers, but the methodologies were too constrictive. That was the problem. The vocabulary through which they could respond was too limited to really yield useful answers.
Well, I wouldn’t say they’re not useful, Michael, because the way they’re asked are based on years and years of experience. But they were limiting in that those studies for a lot of reasons tend to be quantitative, which means that instead of open-ended qualitative inquiry, you’re giving people a list and you’re saying, for instance, OK, how important on a scale of 1 to 10, how important is credibility? How important is sense of humor? How important is teamwork? And regardless of how well informed that list is, it still is a predetermined list.
And so, you know, over time, to me, it felt like we were just kind of getting the same answers kind of over and over again. And the question becomes, OK, but how do we somehow get a look at what we don’t know? We don’t know what might be in viewers’ minds that isn’t going to be touched by this predetermined list of qualities. So that’s what we were looking for.
When you give the respondents this sort of free range to frame out what they want in their own words, is that feedback excessively difficult to synthesize? Or have you found a way to make that cogent?
We think we’ve gotten a really, really interesting new window on this. I don’t want to get too lost in the weeds on it, but we’re doing a couple of different kinds of linguistic analyses on people’s comments. One type of analysis that not just the words people use the most when they describe what they value, but how those ideas connect together in people’s minds. So, we when people are thinking about one thing, they’re most likely thinking about these two or three other things as well. And then we’re actually able to do sentiment analysis again, just based on people’s language, to understand how strongly people feel about things.
So, you know, if the computer sees a comment that says, I like Michael Depp. Then it’s going to score that differently than if it sees a comment that says, I really like Michael Depp. It understands there’s another level of commitment in that second statement. And because the human brain just manually can’t dissect that stuff, especially if you’re looking at thousands of comments or hundreds of comments, we get a pretty clear picture and a different one than we’ve had previously.
It’s important to make a distinction that’s inherent in the way you’ve set this up. But what we’re interested in and what we’re concerned about is what kind of people do viewers value, which is a different conversation than what kind of content do viewers value? I think sometimes those things have gotten a little confused and they are not the same thing. It’s just like with doctors. Many, many studies have shown that bedside manner actually has all sorts of impact on the way news is delivered, has all sorts of impact on how patients respond to it. And I think that’s as true here as it is in anything.
You’ve found in your querying that personality is a very important characteristic for viewers to find in their TV anchors, but that’s a bit of a nebulous thing. How do you pin down what they mean by that?
First of all, it’s a word that viewers use. And so that’s kind of there on the on the face of it. When we look deeper at what they mean by that, essentially what they’re really describing in general is someone who is well-rounded, someone who’s capable of range. The single most valuable attribute that our staff keeps identifying over and over and over again is a sense of humor. But it’s really important to understand that when viewers talk about someone with a sense of humor, it just seems that that is their code for someone who is in a complicated way, really well balanced. It can include, you know, having fun when that’s appropriate. But they attach other really valuable things to that.
For people, it’s evidence of being knowledgeable. It’s evidence of being current on things. It’s different from saying someone who’s funny. And so, it’s really important to make that distinction. But the reason it’s so valuable is because people also equate it with other really valuable things, like being intelligent and being knowledgeable. And so, at the end of the day, it has something to do with I would call a kind of mature complexity.
What about the quality of authenticity, which comes up a lot now when we talk about anchors and how they present themselves or even reporters on the air? How do viewers quantify what they mean by that when they’re looking for it?
They tend to describe it in terms of what I call the experience of the conversation with someone. One thing we’ve heard often from people would be a comment like, it feels like he is really talking to me. He’s not just reading to me. He’s connected in a way that’s something other than just reading a teleprompter. I know he probably is reading like the other people, but it doesn’t it doesn’t feel that way. They also connect authenticity to a kind of, I guess what I would call emotional honesty. And, you know, essentially, that has to do with feeling like they’re people who really care. And that is undeniably very important to people, especially in times of crisis and anxiety.
It sounds like we’re getting into empathy territory.
Yes, empathy is huge, I think that’s a really great and important word. You know, if I can go back to my doctor analogy for a minute, it’s the idea of someone who may not be personally feeling what I’m going through, but they understand what I’m going through, what they care about, what I’m what I’m going through. And that’s huge.
That is a very useful analogy. I can see how you respond to getting serious news, as it really depends on the delivery. I want to come to how all of this information comes back to anchors. There these are people who get no shortage of feedback from coaches and consultants like yourself about how to present themselves. We had a former anchor and a meteorologist on this podcast just a short while back who now host a podcast of their own that sort of pulls back the curtain on the industry. And one of their biggest gripes was the frequent, often contradictory direction that they said they would get from consultants, which sort of left them in their case, kind of incredulous and bitter. I wonder, in your experience, where can the kind of direction that you give potentially go sideways?
Well, it goes sideways, you know, personally as a coach, if you’re not disciplined enough to have good reasons for what you are recommending. And one of the reasons that we got involved with research in our own area was to was that drive to consistently be making ourselves smarter and able to be in conversation so that there should never be something like “do it because I say it’s so.” We have always made a commitment to people, number one, that that I hope they call me on it if I could not give them good reason for anything I recommended and that I had no problem with people disagreeing with me as long as they have good reasons for their disagreements.
Your own bedside manner is just as important as the sort of bedside manner you’re advising them to present.
Oh, it’s huge. I mean, in my particular niche or area, it, you know, trust for us is important as it is for anybody else. For people to trust you, they’ve got to understand that you don’t see your job as figuring out what’s wrong with them or figuring out what needs to be fixed somehow, that you’re just as capable of seeing what’s good and what’s working as you are in having ideas about how things might be evolved.
To point to your previous guest, I joke with people from the consultant side that if you think about any endeavor, you think of a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you’re going to have the scientists, let’s call them the newscast scientists. And they’re the one saying, I don’t care what you think about this. I don’t care what you feel about this. You just do this the way I tell you to do it, and you will be successful because that’s what the science says.
On the other hand, you’ve got the newscast artists that say, now, don’t bother me with any of that. Look, I know what feels good. I know what’s right. And just leave me alone. Let me do my thing.
And the real art of all of it is finding the right balance between the two. And we I’ve watched people get in trouble for years when they drifted too far one way or the other. If you drift to the all the way just to the pragmatic sort of science end of it, then you wind up, you know, with something with no soul. If you drift to the other end, you wind up with something without structure and without any kind of well-informed direction. And so, you’ve got to be able to do both.
Do you end up getting a fair amount of pushback ever from the people who you’re coaching?
Almost never. And I’ve been coaching 40 years this year. There are some important reasons for that. One of the fascinating things to me has been that includes people who you would say, you are so famous and you’re so successful, why would you care or need feedback from anybody? Well, those are often the people who are most interested in it if you can talk about it at their level. Because they’ve been doing it. They have made themselves students of it.
And by their level, do you mean sort of like extreme nuance?
I’ve worked with people like some legendary people like Ann Bishop in Miami, a woman named Monica Kaufman in Atlanta, who was arguably one of the best researching local news anchors in the history of local news broadcasting. We’ve worked with very, very famous athletes at ESPN and also CBS and even people who have no reason to worry that if they don’t take feedback, it’s going to affect their livelihoods at all. Those people are often the most enthusiastic about the conversation, if you can discuss it at a level of nuance. That’s an important part of it. Another important thing is coming to it as a collaboration. That’s always been my instinct.
Is that a collaboration between yourself and the talent, the news director as well? Are they part of that conversation?
Absolutely. They have to be because they’re decisionmakers whose decisions affect everyone’s livelihood. People are going to do best when they feel some ownership of it. And so, to me, it’s really important that I be a good resource for people, a good collaborator with people, a well-informed collaborator. It’s not about somehow telling people to do anything my way.
How much of your coaching in the past or even up to now is directed at details, physical details, like how someone wears their hair or the clothes that they wear, how they physically present themselves? Is that changing, and is the industry moving beyond that kind of surface now? Or is it always going to be important?
Well, I think it’s always going to be important to some extent because it’s well-documented human nature that our brain starts to make decisions about people as soon as we see them before anything else. So, it’s always going to be important part of the conversation.
Personally, my coaching, as far as visual things go, tends to be mostly about things like body language and the physicality of working on camera. There are other people who specialize in what we call visual image, you know, how people dress and organize those things. But I will tell you, there have been people guilty over the years of oversimplifying that. And yet my company takes a position that there should be no cookie-cutter approach to appearance, that there’s good information about why certain kinds of, you know, certain styles of things or colors of things look better on somebody types than other body types.
But at the end of the day, as far as we’re concerned, we want the focus here. We care about the message. And our goal, even with that, is how do we how do you manage that? So, people are focused here and listening to you and not thinking about something else.
There’s been a lot of racism overtly or more subtly or sexism in that sort of [coaching, historically]. And finally, you’ve gotten a lot of people pushing back against that and wearing their hair the way they really do, for instance, or the kind of makeup that they wanted.
Those are, in many circumstances, fair criticisms and fair concerns. And then on the other side, I trained as an actor. So, like doing theater, when you’re there, some things you’ve just got to accept. If someone’s putting a spotlight on you that is at a certain intensity, there are certain professional things you’ve got to do to have that work. And so that’s part of that conversation.
So, Barry what is evolving about the way that you do your job now?
I would say my work is evolving based on what we’re learning and the research we were talking about earlier. That helps us in our own work with people, our own advice, that advice be dynamic and not static. I think this is heartening. At the height of the pandemic and in the middle of the protests, something that really shot to the top in our research was people saying I really value someone who cares about the community. Community became the single most important thing to people, the thing they talked about more than anything else. And so obviously that evolved our conversation with our clients, which was, OK, what does that mean and how do you demonstrate that and what does that mean for your delivery?
Now, you know, fake news is a real thing. One consequence of all of that has been that in general, people used to assume that journalists were generally well-meaning people, you know, people of integrity. Now, many, many people come to the conversation differently and they come to the table suspicious and assuming journalists are somehow dishonest. And after the presidential election, we saw, you know, honesty and trustworthiness were the things that people said they valued the most. And so that seasons our conversation with people. That affects the content.
I would say that I think that that the process for me at least has stayed consistent, which is how do you manage it in a way that it’s well-informed and it’s collaborative, and ultimately it serves the most important thing, and that is the message. It’s what do you need me to understand about what’s happening in my in my world today?
And one last thing about that, which is this should not be a conversation about performance. It must and needs to be a conversation about connection. As one human being, how do you connect with another human being? How do you manage a conversation so that there’s something true going back and forth? That gets to the psychological part of this and the preparation part of this. But it should not be superficial. It should not be about getting a performance right. It’s about needing to communicate something and understanding how to do the work to connect with them.
Well, it has been an overdue conversation to get a consultant/coach’s point of view in this whole equation. So, thanks so much, Barry.
Well, thanks for having me.
It’s been interesting, too, having a conversation with a coach and trying, I think somewhat successfully, this entire conversation to put out of my mind that you might be assessing my own delivery. I think I’ve done it. I think I’ve just blotted it out in order to have the conversation unselfconsciously.
I do appreciate you being here today, Barry. For those of you watching, you can watch past episodes of Talking TV on the videos, TV and Videos page at TVNewsCheck.com. We are also on YouTube where I invite you to like and follow us and of course check in with continuously throughout the day for constantly updating industry news. Thanks to all of you for watching and see you next time.