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.”
Is It Time To Kill The Anchors?
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.”
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]
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